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Psychiatrists Vs Therapists

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 6/13/2022

Seeking mental health guidance can be intimidating because therapy and counseling professionals can have a confusing array of titles. You might also feel intimidated by the process of becoming one of those mental health professionals: What do the different titles mean? What are their scopes of practice? And what kind of education and specialized training do you need to enter these fields? We break down the key differences between psychiatrists and other therapists on this page, including the degrees they require and the types of therapy they practice.

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The Difference Between Therapists and Psychiatrists

There isn't necessarily a difference because a psychiatrist is one particular type of therapist. Professionals with a variety of training and job titles can earn licenses to practice therapy — also called psychotherapy — which involves talking to people about their challenges in order to find solutions to improve their lives. However, the path to becoming a psychiatrist is different from that of other therapists.

What Is a Therapist?

The American Psychological Association notes that therapists can have educational and professional backgrounds that include clinical psychology, counseling, social work, psychiatry, and psychiatric nursing. Some of these professionals further specialize their practice. For example, some counselors focus exclusively on treating substance use disorder.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are doctors who diagnose and treat mental health issues. Like other kinds of therapists, they talk to patients one-on-one or in groups to discover the causes of their concerns. Because of their extensive medical school education and board certification, psychiatrists can also order lab tests and prescribe medication if they feel it's warranted.

Types of Therapists

Deciding to become a therapist isn't enough — you need to choose which type of therapist you want to be. This is because you may want to make different educational choices based on your preferred career path. Below, we tease apart the differences among the various types of therapists.

Counselors

These professionals talk through any challenges that their clients are having and try to help them make positive life changes. Most counselors focus on a particular specialty, including the following:

Marriage and family therapy to guide couples and families through interpersonal problems
Rehabilitation counseling for people with disabilities to learn how to thrive in spite of mobility issues
School counseling to help students and their families navigate the education system
Substance use counseling (formerly substance abuse counseling) for clients trying to overcome various addictions

Employers may require their counselors to hold a professional license, which usually calls for a master's degree. Some states also require licenses for counselors who open private practices.

Social Workers

Similar to counselors, social workers help clients work through problems. Many of them focus less on therapy and more on helping people navigate to useful programs and resources that can improve their lives. These may be child and family social workers at a state or local government agency, healthcare social workers at a hospital, or school social workers serving young students.

However, licensed clinical social workers do provide therapy to individuals and groups. They require a state license to practice.

Psychologists

There are many work settings for psychologists, but some of them practice therapy as licensed clinical psychologists. Psychology is a popular major for all varieties of therapists, but you can't use the title "psychologist" without holding either a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology or Doctor of Psychology degree. As with other types of therapists, psychologists treat clients' mental health individually or in group sessions.

Although they have doctoral degrees, clinical psychologists don't have medical training and are not medical doctors. However, they're allowed to prescribe drugs in five states if they complete a postdoctoral course of study.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists can work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, or private practices. As physicians, they're required to maintain board certification in the states where they practice. They use many of the same techniques as other therapists but have additional tools that include prescription medications and specialized medical procedures.

Education and Training for Therapists and Psychiatrists

Before you decide on a therapy career, you may be curious about what you need to study and for how long. Each profession has different education requirements, as well as training that typically includes supervised experience in a clinical setting toward the end of a degree program. Once you complete the education and training, you'll need to pass a certification or licensure exam in your chosen field.

Read on to learn the requirements for entry into each field.

Occupation Minimum Degree Needed Clinical Requirements
Marriage and family therapist Master's in marriage and family therapy with Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education accreditation 2,000-4,000 hours, depending on the state
Rehabilitation counselor Master's in rehabilitation counseling or a related field; criteria depend on whether the degree has Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) accreditation 1,500-4,000 hours, depending on the state
School counselor Master's in school counseling with American School Counselor Association recognition or CACREP accreditation 300-700 hours, depending on the state
Substance use counselor Bachelor's in substance use counseling with National Addiction Studies Accreditation Commission accreditation 2,000-4,000 hours, depending on the state
Clinical social worker Master's in social work with Council on Social Work Education accreditation 1,500-4,000 hours, depending on the state
Clinical psychologist PhD or PsyD with American Psychological Association accreditation 1,500-6,000 hours, depending on the state
Psychiatrist MD Four years of residency, one in a hospital and three in other settings

Treatment Methods

Mental health service providers have a number of tools for diagnosing and treating their clients. In essence, they're bound only by their creativity and by the code of ethical conduct governing their profession. Some disciplines tend to privilege certain mental health treatments over others, but most therapists can use any of the following methods to help patients.

Psychotherapy

Also called "talk therapy," this treatment involves a client talking to the therapist about their problems. The therapist asks questions to try to reveal the root causes of the patient's challenges, and they discuss possible solutions together and follow up on advice from previous sessions.

Psychotherapy can take place one-on-one or in groups, which can include couples, families, or larger collections of unrelated clients. Clinical social workers and some types of counselors focus their training on environmental therapy, which stresses the importance of an individual's physical and social surroundings to their wellness. Other professions prefer the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model, in which therapists encourage clients to change behavior by reframing negative thoughts.

Intervention

Therapists use this tool in an attempt to stop somebody from continuing harmful behavior that's reached a crisis point. One of the most common versions is intervention for substance use disorder, in which a patient's loved ones gather along with a counselor to implore the person to seek treatment.

Systematic desensitization

This is the practice of exposing patients to increasing amounts of things or situations that cause them fear or anxiety. Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists may subscribe to systematic desensitization as a way to gradually reduce negative associations that lower people's quality of life.

Medication

This treatment is the exclusive province of psychiatrists in all states and clinical psychologists in a few. Psychiatrists can choose to prescribe a variety of drugs once they diagnose a patient's issues according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This includes medications for treating anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, insomnia, and ADHD.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

This is another treatment that only a psychiatrist can prescribe. It involves a device that administers electric pulses to an anesthetized patient's head. ECT is typically only recommended to treat severe depression or psychiatric disorders, and then only once medication and other treatment plans have failed to work.

Therapy Careers

More than ever, people around the world are recognizing mental health conditions in themselves and their loved ones. This enhanced awareness is a positive first step toward addressing these problems, but an expanded workforce is needed to keep up with the increased demand for mental health services.

Thankfully, you have many options for careers that serve people's psychological needs. We've already detailed their job duties and education and training requirements, but here you can find details of their wages and expected job growth. All this data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Occupation Median Annual Salary Job Field Outlook
Marriage and Family Therapist $49,880, with the highest paying jobs in state government ($77,960) 16% growth in the 2020-2030 period
Rehabilitation Counselor $38,560, with the highest paying jobs in state government ($55,330) 10% growth in the 2020-2030 period
School Counselor $60,510, with the highest paying jobs in elementary and secondary schools ($63,460) 11% growth in the 2020-2030 period
Substance Use Counselor $48,520, with the highest paying jobs in hospitals ($60,450) 23% growth in the 2020-2030 period
Social Worker $50,390, with the highest paying jobs in local government ($61,190) 12% growth in the 2020-2030 period
Psychologist $79,510 for clinical psychologists 10% growth in the 2020-2030 period
Psychiatrist $249,760 13% growth in the 2020-2030 period

FAQs About the Differences Between Psychiatrists and Therapists

What Is the Difference Between A Psychiatrist And A Therapist?


A psychiatrist is simply one type of therapist, though they tend to have more education and training than other types because they are board-certified medical doctors. Consequently, they also earn much higher pay on average. Other types of therapists include all varieties of counselors, social workers, and clinical psychologists.

Does It Take Longer to Become a Psychiatrist or a Therapist?


Becoming a psychiatrist usually takes longer than becoming any other variety of therapist. Psychiatrists must complete a four-year bachelor's degree, four-year medical degree, and four-year residency before they can practice independently.

Does a Psychiatrist or Therapist Get Paid More?


Among the various types of therapists, psychiatrists earn the highest wages by far. At $249,760, they even earn higher yearly median pay than several other types of doctors.

Is It Better to Be a Therapist or Psychiatrist?


This question needs a bit of nuance, because you don't necessarily need to be one or the other — a psychiatrist is one form of therapist. But if you're considering psychiatry, you may want to ask whether you're willing and able to spend at least eight years in school followed by a four-year residency. You may prefer to start your career earlier as a different type of therapist with lower barriers to entry.

The Bottom Line

A number of occupations fit into the broad category of therapist, including counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. All of these careers have specific education, training, and licensure requirements, along with different possible specializations. Some therapy methods are common to most types of therapists, such as psychotherapy and intervention. In addition, psychiatrists can prescribe medication, order medical tests, and help perform procedures such as ECT.

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