Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist vs. Therapist: A Guide to Mental Health Professionals


When you decide to seek treatment for a behavioral health condition, your options can feel overwhelming. You’ve probably heard various terms and the differences are not always clear. What’s the difference between a psychologist vs. psychiatrist? What about therapists and counselors? Which one will you see if you decide to try therapy? And why do certain people have titles like LCSW and LPC after their names?

To answer those questions and make it easy for you to find the best mental health care, we’ve created a guide to the types of mental health professionals.

What Do Therapists Do?

A therapist is a general term that can apply to a variety of professionals, including social workers and licensed counselors. Most therapists have a master’s degree in a related field such as psychology or social work.

The terms “counselor” and “psychotherapist” generally mean the same thing as “therapist” in everyday usage. However, “counselor” is a broader term that could refer to someone without the licensing and advanced education that therapists possess. Look for letters after a counselor’s name to determine what type of licensing they have, such as LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) or LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker).

You may also come across more specific terms such as “marriage and family counselor” that tell you what field a therapist specializes in. This is helpful if you’re seeking therapy for a particular condition or problem, such as grief or marital conflicts.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

Psychologists have a doctorate degree in the field and are trained in both therapeutic and research techniques. Although some states allow psychologists to write prescriptions, in most cases, you will need to see a psychiatrist for medication.

In a clinical setting, psychologists provide therapy and administer testing. You could see a psychologist only once for a psychological evaluation, or they may become a part of your regular treatment team.

Although therapists and psychologists share similar roles, psychologists have more extensive training since they hold a doctorate degree. For complex mental health conditions, you may want to see a psychologist who is experienced in your condition, rather than a therapist who provides general counseling.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists obtain a medical degree, so they are actually medical doctors who specialize in mental health. This means they have the ability to prescribe medicine. When medication is necessary, you will be referred to a psychiatrist by your primary care doctor or another mental health professional.

Since they study the human body extensively in medical school, psychiatrists have a better understanding of how physical and mental health influence each other. Psychiatrists can provide therapy, but many choose to focus on prescriptions and medication management instead.

Which Specialist Should I See?

Which professional you should see depends on the reasons you are seeking treatment. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists are all trained in a variety of therapeutic techniques, but may choose to specialize in certain areas.

The best thing to do is contact a mental health center with a variety of treatment professionals. At your first appointment, you will be matched with a specialist who can best address your needs. Later on, you may decide to switch to a different therapist or psychologist, or ask for a referral to another psychiatrist.

Could Therapy Be Right for Me?

There are a lot of misconceptions about therapy in our culture, one of them being that mental health treatment is only for people with pathological conditions. The reality is, your mental health requires everyday maintenance. That includes seeing a professional at times, much like you see a physician.

If you are currently facing challenges in your life, or just feel that you need to talk to someone, therapy may benefit you. If you think there may be an underlying mental health condition that needs to be addressed, then it’s probably best to get a formal diagnosis from a professional. Contact The Light Program at (888) 686-7511 to schedule an appointment. You can also find your nearest location and contact that location directly.