Therapists vs. Psychiatrists

Therapists and psychiatrists both focus on treating mental health disorders and the associated symptoms, but they go about it in different ways. The most distinct difference is that psychiatrists have a medical degree and can prescribe medications and medical treatments. Because of the difference in education and training, psychiatrists also command a higher salary than therapists.

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The Difference Between Therapists and Psychiatrists

Therapists

A therapist can be a counselor, psychologist or other professional licensed to provide mental health care. “Therapist” is an umbrella term for professionals who are educated, trained and licensed to provide talk therapy or psychotherapy. During therapy, they can assess, diagnose and treat mental health disorders.

Most professionals who can call themselves therapists cannot prescribe medications that might be useful in treating mental health conditions. However in some states, psychologists with training in clinical psychopharmacology can prescribe certain medications to treat mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association.

Psychiatrists

A psychiatrist has a medical degree that allows them to not only diagnose medical conditions but also prescribe medication. A psychiatrist focuses on diagnosing, treating and preventing mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Psychiatrists use several treatment methods, including psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications, such as antidepressants, sedatives, anxiolytics, antipsychotic medications, hypnotics, mood stabilizers and stimulants.

Is a psychiatrist a therapist?

Most psychiatrists only manage patients’ prescriptions and other medical treatments and do not offer talk therapy. Patients often work with both a therapist and a psychiatrist to best treat their mental health disorders. However, some psychiatrists offer talk therapy and other clinical treatments to patients.

Types of Therapists

A therapist can be a licensed counselor, social worker, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst or psychologist. All these individuals have different education tracks, training and licenses.

What a therapist can call themselves may differ depending on state law. The services they offer and the structure of their services also often differ.

Licensed counselors

There are many types of counseling careers, including:

  • Marriage and family counselors.
  • Mental health counselors.
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorders counselors.
  • Rehabilitation counselors.
  • School guidance counselors.

Many states require licensed counselors to have master’s degrees and obtain certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors. Counselors might be required to pass the National Counselor Examination, the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination or both to obtain a license.

States offer different types of counselor licenses.

Most marriage and family counselors complete a master’s degree in family therapy degree. States might require marital and family therapists to pass the licensing exam by the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.

Clinical social workers

Clinical social workers must earn a Master of Social Work degree, complete two years of post-degree direct clinical experience and pass the Association of Social Work Boards’ Social Work Licensing Exam.

Psychologists

A psychologist must earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Some programs require Ph.D. or PsyD applicants to have a master’s in psychology, as well. Psychologists have a significant amount of clinical and research training.

Each state has licensing requirements, including passing an exam, which can be reviewed through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Should I See a Therapist or a Psychiatrist?

Who you should see for mental health care depends on your problems and goals. Talk therapy with a counselor or psychologist can be helpful if you are having trouble dealing with stress, family or marriage difficulties, school, work or social situations. However, if you are experiencing more severe or disturbing symptoms. such as hearing or seeing things that are not there, having violent thoughts toward others, or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you may consider seeing a psychiatrist. If you are not sure which type of health care professional to talk to, you may want to consult with your primary care doctor.

If you are interested in talk therapy, know that there are differences between psychologists and other therapists. Counseling psychologists can assess, diagnose and treat severe psychological issues. They will address your emotional, social and other health concerns, which can help you struggle less in school, at work, as part of a family or in social settings. A psychologist also will focus on helping you make decisions to treat and improve your mental health.

A therapist, depending on their training and license, will use talk therapy, which is a common tactic to encourage you to reach your own answers and conclusions about your problems. Therapists can give you coping strategies, help you alter negative thinking patterns and manage stress. Depending on the therapist’s background, they might not have the same ability to diagnose and treat mental health conditions as a psychologist.

You might prefer to look for a therapist who specializes in certain issues. For example, if you are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, you might benefit from finding a therapist who is a licensed substance abuse counselor. The first step is to review the types of counselors your state licenses and look for an experienced, licensed professional.

Differences in Education

Depending on the type of therapist, the professional will likely have a master's or doctoral degree. Therapists’ education and training differ depending on state requirements and the services they offer. Many hold a master’s degree in counseling or social work or a doctoral degree in psychology. It is important to note that supervised clinical training is required before passing a licensing exam.

Psychiatrists are doctors who attend medical school, complete a psychiatric residency, pass written and oral exams, and usually become board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Unlike the various types of therapists, a psychiatrist is either an MD or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.

Differences in Training

Most states require licensed counselors, social workers and psychologists to complete a certain amount of supervised clinical experience before they can practice independently.

Psychiatrists have the most direct medical training through medical school and a four-year psychiatric residency. They have education and training regarding the body and the brain and nervous system (neurology).

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist Salaries

Salaries for therapists vary depending on the professional’s license, position, location and years of experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median salaries in 2018 were:

Because psychiatrists are doctors, they have higher salaries. The average annual wage for psychiatrists in 2018 was $220,380, according to the BLS.

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist Checklist

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Key Difference Licensed Counselor (Therapist) Psychologist (Therapist) Psychiatrist
Post-Bachelor’s Degree Education Master’s degree Doctoral degree (Ph.D. or PsyD) Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
Residency/Internship Requirement Yes. States require clinical or internship hours. One- or two-year supervised clinical training or field internship. Four-year psychiatric residency. May be followed by a fellowship.
Ability to Write Prescriptions No No, except in select states under specific circumstances. Yes
Salary (BLS 2018) $35,630 - $50,090 $79,010 $220,380

Two Different Professions With the Same Goal

Therapists and psychiatrists both work with individuals to improve mental health symptoms. They talk with patients, uncover what is wrong and help patients improve their thoughts and behaviors to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. The difference is how these two professions go about it. While therapists focus on psychotherapy and behavioral changes, psychiatrists use medical treatments, including prescription drugs, to treat mental health disorders.

FAQs

What is the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist?

A therapist is a licensed counselor or psychologist who can use talk therapy to help you treat mental health symptoms and improve how you manage stress and relationships. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and prescribe medication to treat mental health disorders.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

A psychologist has a master's or doctoral degree and uses various psychotherapy methods to improve patients’ symptoms. A psychiatrist has a medical degree and can utilize many treatment options, including medications, to treat mental health conditions.

Which profession takes the most time?

Becoming a psychiatrist requires the greatest time commitment. Psychiatrists must complete an undergrad degree, medical school and a four-year residency. Many therapists complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and some go through a year or two of supervised clinical training.

Does a psychiatrist or therapist get paid more?

A psychiatrist's salary is much higher than a psychologist or licensed counselor’s salary. Therapist’s salaries vary significantly depending on their training and area of expertise.