If you’ve ever searched for a therapist, you’ve probably discovered that there are many different types of mental health professionals. You may have seen letters like LMFT, LPC, LCSW, MA, PsyD., or Ph.D. after someone’s name and wondered what the difference is between the different credentials. You may have also heard words like psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist, or counselor used. It can be confusing to figure out the difference between all of these credentials. Which one should you see?
For example, what is the difference between psychiatrists and therapists? Lots of people use these terms interchangeably since they’re under the umbrella of mental health. However, these terms don’t mean the same thing! Psychiatrists and therapists are both mental health professionals, but they have different specialties.
The biggest difference between therapists and psychiatrists is that psychiatrists are medical doctors. They attend four years of medical school and then complete an internship after, followed by a residency for 3 years. Psychiatrists specialize in diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health disorders. Just like sometimes you need to see a specialist instead of a general practitioner when you go to the doctor, sometimes you need a different level of care for your mental health. Psychiatrists can also look at the bigger picture of how your mental health interacts with the rest of your health, and look out for any interactions between conditions or medications. Seeing a psychiatrist can help give you a better understanding of how your mental health interacts with your overall health.
Because psychiatrists attend medical school, they have the ability to prescribe and manage medications for their patients, which often goes hand in hand with therapy. However, psychiatrists themselves don’t often do talk therapy with their patients, since their training is specialized in a different area. Psychiatrists often work together with therapists to prescribe medications to clients who are also in talk therapy.
A visit with a psychiatrist is usually different from a therapy session. Usually, you will go in and see a psychiatrist for a longer intake appointment, so they can become familiar with your specific case. After the intake session, psychiatrists typically have short check-ups with clients to manage their medications.
On the other hand, when someone is a therapist, that means they could have one of a number of credentials. Therapist is really an umbrella term that encompasses many different types of professionals. They could be psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, or counselors. Therapists can be trained in a variety of ways, which explains the differences in titles. Most therapists have at least a master’s degree in a field related to counseling. In addition to schooling, most professional organizations for therapists require continuing education to maintain licensure, so therapists are always learning + developing new skills.
Therapists can’t prescribe medications, but they can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, and they frequently work closely with a client’s medical doctor or psychiatrist to get them the meds they need. Therapy sessions are structured differently than psychiatry appointments. Usually, you will meet for hour-long sessions regularly (most common is once a week) instead of following up in a certain time frame. As your needs change, you might meet with your therapist less frequently, but that will be something you discuss in session.
So, how do you choose what type of provider to see?
It depends. Some folks see a therapist and a psychiatrist in order to get the benefits of talk therapy modalities while also benefitting from medication prescribed by the psychiatrist. If you’re not looking for talk therapy and instead are looking to get a prescription for a mental health condition, you might want to focus your search on psychiatrists, since they can prescribe medication. If you’re more interested in talk therapy to start off with, a therapist is probably a better fit for you. The nice thing, since they are different types of providers, is that if your needs change and you need to add another provider to your treatment team, you can do so.
If you’re interested in meeting with a psychiatrist or a therapist to discuss your mental health, we have several clinicians who can help! We have both therapists and psychiatrists at our practice, so whatever your needs are, we can support you.