Updated on 12/20/2022.
Although the stigma around mental health persists, many people are increasingly comfortable enough to reveal that they are talking to a therapist about their mental illness and getting the help they need.
However, many still tend to feel nervous when they have to make an appointment with a psychiatrist for their mental health condition. Working with a psychiatrist is often seen as more daunting than a therapy session, and this point of view paints a not-so-pleasant view of psychiatrists.
To some, it seems as though a psychiatrist and a therapist have the same role, and many find it difficult to distinguish one from the other — after all, both are professionals trained to help people to improve their mental health and well-being. Therapy and psychiatry share many similarities, and the practices involved in both fields are often used in tandem to provide the best mental health care and treatment options. So what’s the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist? A therapist is a licensed professional that can provide therapy to help people manage their mental health, while a psychiatrist is a medical doctor that is allowed to diagnose disorders and prescribe medication for people.
For the individual seeking the most effective treatment plan available, it’s important to know the distinct difference between a therapist vs psychiatrist — and decide which practitioner is most appropriate to engage as a first response as well as to manage a mental health condition long-term.
The Difference Between a Therapist vs Psychiatrist
A therapist — also called a psychotherapist or mental health counselor — is a mental health professional who is trained to help individuals resolve issues with their behavior, thoughts, emotions, and relationships. The term “therapist” is used for a wide range of specialists who provide a variety of treatment and rehabilitative options regarding mental health problems and wellbeing, just two examples include psychoanalysts and social workers. The ultimate goal of therapy is to help a person work through their feelings and make decisions in order to solve problems.
What is a therapist?
One Talkspace therapist defines a therapist as someone who helps others find their strengths and courage to confront and make sense of difficult emotions and experiences so they can learn and thrive in their lives. Therapists are great listeners and provide an unmatched source of support. The therapy process involves an exploration of a person’s experiences that may have triggered the issue they’re facing — as well as help with typical things like relationships, goal setting, and stress at work — and the therapist acts as a guide to aid that person unpack their feelings and emotions. This can be done in person or through online therapy.
In the U.S., therapists are required to have studied a subject related to mental health and therapy, such as psychology, child development, social work, or neuroscience. A therapist must also have attained a master’s degree at a university with an accredited program related to their area of specialty, surpass a threshold of supervised training (typically 2,000 hours), and they’re also required to apply for licensure before beginning practice. State license requirements vary, so it’s important to confirm with the state’s governing body overseeing accreditation and area of specialization, before working with a new therapist.
What is a psychiatrist?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health, including substance abuse disorders. In this regard, psychiatrists play a similar role as counseling therapists. However, psychiatrists are also qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. They are trained as physicians, and perform both medical and psychological tests to provide a concrete background of a person’s physical and mental state.
So, what does a psychiatrist do? With medical training, psychiatrists are equipped with the knowledge of the relationship between mental illness, physiology, and the interplay with medical conditions — this helps them provide an accurate diagnosis for patients, who work closely with the psychiatrist to decide on an effective treatment plan.
Unlike therapists, psychiatrists are expected to complete a four-year program in medical school and receive specific training in psychiatry for a four-year residency period. They will need a medical degree in order to conduct psychological testing, counseling, and other duties. The first year of residency training is typically done in a hospital, where the psychiatrist-in-training works with patients in other fields outside their area of specialty. The next three years are spent learning about the diagnostic process and treatment of mental illness, including areas like psychotherapy.
After residency training, most psychiatrists take a voluntary examination from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to become a certified practitioner. This certification must be renewed every ten years.
Distinguishing the two from a psychologist
Both a psychiatrist and a psychologist can treat mental health conditions with psychological treatments like talk therapy. Where the two differ most is that psychiatrists are medical doctors with a doctoral degree who are able to prescribe medication, while psychologists cannot.
Note: As of 2022, five states allow clinical psychologists to prescribe mental health medication: New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Idaho.
Should You See a Therapist or a Psychiatrist?
The American Psychological Association suggests that you should consider seeing a therapist if you are affected by any of the following:
- Think about a troubling issue for at least an hour, each day
- The issue causes you shame or embarrassment
- The quality of your life has been decreased by the issue
- Your daily routines and your relationships have been affected as a result of the issue
- You’ve had to make noticeable changes in your life because of the issue
On the other hand, David Y. Harari advises that a session with a psychiatrist may be necessary if you’re specifically looking for or have been told by a medical professional that you need medication to treat a mental health condition, or if you’re uncertain about the cause of your symptoms. A psychiatrist can also help if you have a more complicated mental health issue like schizophrenia, or any other disorder that should be managed with the use of psychotropic medication.
When Psychiatry Meets Therapy
Psychiatrists can use a number of treatment options including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), depending on the needs of each patient. One of the most effective treatment models is the practice of collaborative care, whereby the therapist and psychiatrist share their expertise and work together to create a treatment plan that suits the patient. This approach is effective because a therapist, who may see a patient at least once a week, shares their perspective, giving the psychiatrist a wider view of the patient’s needs.
The psychiatrist can then alter the treatment plan to respond to new issues by raising or lowering dosage, for instance. Furthermore, when the psychiatrist shares their medical opinion with a client’s therapist, it may inform their course of treatment as well.
Collaborative mental health treatment is highly beneficial to those seeking mental health interventions. By being well connected and collaboratively engaged with experts from other disciplines, mental health practitioners can ensure the most effective and integrated treatment. A good treatment plan must be centered around the affected individual. This treatment model enhances the communication of relevant and evaluative therapeutic feedback, increases adherence to a treatment plan, and reduces the risk of misdiagnosis or ineffective mental health treatment.
Making a decision on a treatment plan that’s right for you can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to opt for the treatment that benefits you the most. If you’re unsure where to start, speaking to a therapist for a consultation, can help lead you in the right direction. To get in touch with a therapist or psychiatrist today — try Talkspace telehealth psychiatry or online therapy today.
1. American Psychiatric Association. What Is Psychiatry? www.psychiatry.org. Published 2020. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry-menu
2. American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Published 2019. https://www.abpn.com/
3. Idaho Becomes Fifth State to Allow Psychologists to Prescribe Medications. https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/04/idaho-psychologists-medications. Published April 5, 2017.
4. How Do I Know if I Need Therapy? https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/seeking-therapy. Published July 31, 2017.