What is the difference between a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a therapist? Which one is right for you?
These questions come up often when people are thinking about how to start therapy. This information applies to the US and Canada. In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, the titles and training are a bit different.
All of the following information (plus more) is available in this book, Talk It Out, I wrote about how to find the right therapist for your specific needs and situations. This question gets asked so often, and this information is so important, I wrote this so everyone can access it.
Let's get clear on language!
Let's start with getting clear on language. In the US, we generally refer to anyone providing services related to therapy, diagnosis, and mental health treatment as Mental Health Providers.
The words counseling, therapy, and psychotherapy are generally used interchangeably and refer to talk therapy. There are many, many different types of talk therapy (like CBT, ACT, psychodynamic therapy, just to name three).
In the United States, the word psychiatrist is reserved for someone who has a Medical Doctor (MD degree) and additional training in mental health and medications for mental health treatment. Someone must be licensed by their state board to call themselves a psychiatrist.
In the United State, the word psychologist is reserved for someone who has completed a doctoral degree in psychology and is licensed to practice as a psychologist in their state. Professors with psychology doctoral degrees in academic institutions are usually licensed, but they can use the word "psychologist".
The words therapist and counsellor and psychotherapist are not protected and may be used by anyone. In most states, however, it is against the law to provide mental health services without a license to practice from the state.
Different Degrees–Differences in Training & Skills
Psychiatrist: MD (medical doctor) who prescribes medication. Most psychiatrists in the US have short appointments 5-15 minutes, focused on medication. Most psychiatrists do not do talk therapy.
Psych ARNP: Advanced Registered Nurse practitioner. Prescribes medication. They usually have a nursing degree and two years of an advanced degree. Most Psych ARNPs do a combo of medication management and talk therapy.
Psychologist: PhD or PsyD (both about 4-6 years of graduate training). Psychologists evaluate, treat, provide talk therapy, and work in a wide range of settings (medical, hospital, community mental health, private practice). Psychologists are the only providers who are licensed to conduct neuropsych batteries, including IQ testing. Most psychologists do not prescribe medication, although some states like TN do allow for a psychologist to get prescription privileges with extra training.
Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT): Someone with an MFT has a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, which means about 2-3 years of graduate work. They specialize in talk therapy, working with children, families, and couples. They do not prescribe medication.
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC): Inn some states like WA, this is called Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). This credential requires a master's degree, meaning 2-3 years of graduate work. They tend to have more generalized training, and then specialize through their work setting. All range of settings and special emphasis in training. Generally in private practice or community settings. Conducts talk therapy. Does not prescribe medications.
Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This credential requires 2-3 years of additional graduate work. They do talk therapy among other things. They usually work in community settings. They are awesome advocates for people who need basic resources like help with housing, help accessing medical care.
Life coaches: No certification required. Anyone can call themselves a life coach. They have generally no training or licensure.
In the United States, anyone who bills health insurance companies is required to make a diagnosis. That includes MD, Psych ARNP, PhD, MFT, LSCW, and all the other licensed health professions.
Finding the right therapist for your needs and situations is super important for successful therapy. If there is a mismatch between your expectations and the therapist's skills and training, you are much less likely to get what you need out of therapy.
Want more info about therapy and finding the right therapist for you? Check out my other articles on therapy.