Is a psychiatrist the same as a psychologist? What about a social worker? Can a psychologist prescribe medication? What about my primary care physician? Are any of these people therapists? And what do all the letters mean after someone's name?
When it comes to finding mental health care, it shouldn't be confusing, but it often is. Like with most things regarding your health, you can always speak to your primary care doctor and tell them what's been going on with your mental health. They’ll ask about your symptoms and check for any physical problems that could be contributing. You can also use a service like MyWellbeing that will match you with a therapist based on what you think you might be looking for.
Whether you're ready to start therapy and you just don't know who to choose, you're looking to switch therapists and find one who's more of a fit for you, or you're simply therapy curious, in this blog, we’ll break down the different types of people who provide mental health therapy and give you a few things to consider when you're looking for the right therapist for you.
A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and study of mental, behavioral, and personality disorders. As a medial doctor, they’ll have a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO).
In the United States, they’re required to complete four years of premedical training in college; four years in medical school, the final two years of which are spent in clerkships studying with physicians in at least five specialty areas; and a four-year residency in a hospital or agency approved by the American Medical Association.
During this residency, the first year is spent as a hospital intern and the final three are in psychiatric residency, where they learn diagnosis and the use of psychiatric medications and other treatment modes. After their residency, most psychiatrists take a voluntary examination for certification by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Because a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, they're able to write prescriptions for medication such as ones some people take for anxiety, ADHD, depression, and more. If you receive a combination of psychotherapy or counseling plus medication, your psychiatrist may provide that psychotherapy or refer you to another mental health professional.
A psychologist is an individual who is professionally trained in one or more branches or subfields of psychology at a university or a school of professional psychology. They earn a doctoral degree in philosophy (PhD), psychology (PsyD), or education (EdD).
Psychologists work in a variety of settings, including laboratories, schools, social agencies, hospitals, clinics, the military, industry and business, prisons, the government, and private practice (such as a therapist). Psychologist’s professions can include psychological counseling, involvement in other mental health care services, educational testing and assessment, research, teaching, and business and organizational consulting. Formal certification or professional licensing is required to practice independently in many of these settings and activities.
Licensed psychologists can perform psychotherapy testing and provide treatment for mental health conditions, but they are not medical doctors which means they cannot write prescriptions for medication (in the majority of the United States). If you're working with a psychologist as your therapist and you're interested in medication, your psychologist will work with another healthcare provider on a combination plan that includes therapy and medication for you.
A social worker is devoted to helping individuals, families, and other groups deal with personal and practical problems within the larger community context of which they are a part. Social workers address a variety of topics, including those related to mental or physical health, poverty, living arrangements, child care, occupational stress, and unemployment, especially through involvement in the provision of social services.
If your therapist is a social worker, they’ll be a licensed master social worker (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). A licensed master social worker (LMSW) is a professional license to practice social work. An LMSW may work in a variety of care or agency settings to deliver therapy, counseling and life-betterment services to people who need them, but they must operate under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or LCSW to provide clinical therapy or mental health services. An LCSW can provide clinical services to clients independent of supervision and typically have a master’s degree and two years of supervised field experience.
A licensed mental health counselor has a master's degree in psychology, counseling, or a similar field related to mental health. They can evaluate and treat mental health conditions through counseling or psychotherapy. To become licensed, they need additional years of experience working alongside a qualified mental health professional after they complete their master's degree.
Psychiatric-Mental Health (PMH) registered nurses (RN) and advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) represent the second largest group of behavioral health professionals in the US. A psychiatric nurse has had additional training in providing mental health care in addition to their nursing education. Their certifications and levels of training differ, but generally they can evaluate patients and also perform psychotherapy. In some states, they can prescribe medication with or without the supervision of a medical doctor. Like social workers, they can also provide case management and advocate for patients and their families.
The word "therapist" is a generic term that can refer to a licensed counselor or clinical psychologist authorized to treat mental illnesses without the use of medication. A psychiatrist will generally refer to themselves as a psychiatrist rather than a therapist.
A counselor is an individual professionally trained in counseling, psychology, social work, or nursing who specializes in one or more counseling areas, such as vocational, rehabilitation, educational, substance abuse, marriage, relationship, or family counseling. A counselor provides professional evaluations, information, and suggestions designed to enhance the client’s ability to solve problems, make decisions, and effect desired changes in attitude and behavior.
When it comes to mental health (rather than say, a physical therapist) a therapist is an individual who has been trained in and practices one or more types of therapy to treat mental conditions. It is often used synonymously with psychotherapist.
Counselors and therapists are both mental health professionals. As long as they hold the correct training and qualifications, both can provide talk therapy.
In general, counselors can offer short-term care and could potentially have a set number of sessions to work with them, while a therapist might tend to offer more long-term care and you can expect to work with them on a more ongoing basis. Some therapists can be more focused on mental health conditions and the past, such as things that happened in your childhood or traumatic experiences, whereas counselors are sometimes future-focused and can support you with specific life challenges, such as when you're changing jobs.
These are, however, generalizations, and only meant to help you narrow down your options as you start your search. The best way to know how you and a therapist or counselor might work together is to see if they outline how they work on their website or have a consultation call with them and they'll be able to answer your specific question.
These consultations should be free and are usually about fifteen minutes long. It can seem a little scary to talk to a stranger on the phone, but counselors and therapists are used to doing these sorts of consultative conversations. You won't say anything they haven't heard before, so it's important to be open and honest about your needs and goals, and they'll be able to help you determine if the two of you will make a good fit.
There are dozens of types of therapists who all have different specialties, approaches, and ways of working with their clients. Even if you know the difference between a psychiatrist, a counselor, and more, how are you supposed to know which one to work with?
Maybe you're having issues in your relationship, you're dealing with trauma, you're struggling with substance abuse, you're not quite sure how you feel but you know it's not great, or you're in a wonderful place and you want to stay that way.
These are all valid reasons to work with a mental health care provider. Take some time, figure out what your needs and desires are, and that will help you narrow down your search.
Think about whether you're interested in individual therapy, couples therapy, group therapy, therapy that focuses on certain life events such as loss or divorce, plus whether you'd like to engage in therapy in-person or online. This will help you narrow down your search a little more.
Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can be broken down into different categories such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, and more. Talk therapy can be used to treat conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, grief, relationship issues, and much, much more. Other forms of therapy include EMDR, holistic therapy and more. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re looking for to take the first few steps, but familiarizing yourself, even briefly, with what’s out there will set you up for success when you start reaching out to a short list of potential therapists.
Because the field is so broad and treatments are so tailored to the individual, it makes total sense that it can be daunting to get started with therapy. When you narrow down what you're looking to accomplish in therapy or what you're looking to get support with, you can use that as a jumping-off point to start looking for the therapist that's right for you.
Using a matching service like ours or going through a directory and looking for search terms that are important to you, such as LGBTQIA or social anxiety, can be very helpful when looking for a therapist. If you want step-by-step plan, check out our ultimate guide to starting therapy. And remember that any mental health care provider you reach out to should want the best for you—if you’re not a good fit for them and what they offer, a good therapist will point you in the right direction to someone who might be able to help, provide referrals to other therapists or services, or suggest next steps to get you the care you deserve.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.