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Last updated: Jul 28, 2021
6 min read

Therapist vs. psychologist: what’s the difference?

Therapists and psychologists are mental health care providers and help people improve their mental well-being. The differences between the two professions are sometimes hard to understand because they seem very similar. Psychologists may be therapists, but not all therapists are psychologists.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

When we see therapists and psychologists in movies, they’re usually sitting in an office asking a client, “How do you feel about that?”. Both therapists and psychologists may indeed give therapy in private practice, but their skills make them helpful in various settings such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and private companies.

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What is a therapist?

“Therapist” is an umbrella term for someone who has a license to practice therapy. But not all therapists have the same background and skills. Licensure requirements vary by state and specialty. Most therapists have at least a bachelor’s degree as well as a certification to practice. Many have master’s degrees in social work. Some even have a Ph.D. or other advanced education (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

A therapist’s ability to diagnose patients varies between states. Some therapists may refer a patient to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis (National Conference of State Legislators, 2020).

Therapists work in schools, hospitals, mental health facilities, and private practice. They may practice group and individual therapy, and many have different specializations. Psychologists, Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT), Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (LCADC), and pastoral counselors can all be therapists (NAMI, 2020). 

Therapists cannot prescribe medications. People who need prescription psychiatric medications like antidepressants while seeing a therapist can see a prescribing practitioner simultaneously. Psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and some primary care providers prescribe psychiatric medications (NAMI, 2020). 

What is a psychologist?

‘Psychologist’ is a more academic term. They’ve completed psychology coursework in undergraduate, graduate school, and even postgraduate education. They may have a doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D. (philosophical doctorate), PsyD (psychological doctorate), or EdD (educational doctorate). Education focuses on theory, research, and scientific methods (American Psychological Association, 2017). 

Just because someone is a psychologist does not mean they are a therapist or clinician. Psychologists often use their expertise in other fields. For example, they conduct research or teach at universities. Or they may work as part of the healthcare team in hospitals and prisons, and some practice in schools (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). A clinical psychologist helps people with mental health issues in hospitals, schools, or private practice. 

Psychologists can diagnose mental health conditions and can recommend a treatment plan. Most psychologists cannot prescribe medications, but in some states, they can (American Psychological Association, 2017). Many psychologists work alongside a psychiatrist—a medical doctor— to treat those who need psychiatric medication.

Similarities between therapists and psychologists

Therapists and clinical psychologists typically consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to be the best-proven standard for practice. It is the oldest and best-researched method for psychotherapy and talk therapy. CBT was the first evidence-based method used in the field (David, 2018). The American Psychology Association (APA) lists it as a first-line treatment for many diagnoses (American Psychological Association, 2017). CBT has evolved and continues to change as more research and literature emerge (David, 2018). 

However, there are over 400 kinds of psychotherapy approaches, and your therapist or psychologist will probably use a combination of several (Zarbo, 2016). In the past, therapeutic methods have been more structured and regimented. Psychotherapists and researchers now agree that there is no one-size-fits-all method for therapy. An Integrative psychotherapy model takes this into account. This means combining an evidence-based yet individualized plan (Zarbo, 2016).

Your therapist or psychologist will develop a plan with you based on your unique needs, goals, and strengths. 

When to see a therapist or psychologist

People see therapists and psychologists for all kinds of reasons, and it’s never wrong to seek help if you are struggling. If you’re finding difficulty with any of the following mental health conditions, it may be time to seek help:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teletherapy is more available than ever before. While some clients may prefer in-person sessions, people living in remote areas can now benefit from seeing a therapist via video call. There’s only limited research comparing the effectiveness of remote therapy and in-person sessions. Preliminary data suggests the two are comparable, and for some in remote areas, teletherapy may be the only option (Irvine, 2020).

Some clinics ask patients to come into the office for an in-person session before starting a teletherapy regimen (Markowitz, 2020).

Choosing a therapist or psychologist

It’s important to research a therapist’s specialties and skills before committing to working with them. The strongest proven predictor of success in therapy is a good relationship between the client and the therapist (Arnow, 2013). Some personality aspects may give you a clue about whether a therapist or psychologist could be a good fit. You want a therapist who shows warmth, compassion, empathy, openness, and unconditional positive regard toward you (Carey, 2012).

Studies suggest that the best therapists have better return rates, tend to see patients more often, and are more effective during sessions. It is important to complete your course of therapy (Saxon, 2016). 

Ways to find a therapist near you:

  • If you have insurance, contact your insurance agency for a list of providers in your network.
  • Speak with your primary care provider about your needs. They should be able to refer you to someone. 
  • If you feel comfortable, ask a close friend or family member if they have a mental health professional they would recommend. Even if that person isn’t accepting patients, they can usually refer you to someone who is. 
  • PsychologyToday has a Find a Therapist Page where you can search for a provider by location, then see their credentials and bio. 

Once you find a therapist or psychologist, it is vital to do more research to ensure they are a good fit. Most providers will have a first session with you to determine your personality and needs before deciding to work together. 

Questions to ask your therapist or psychologist:

  • Ask about your specific concerns; how often do they see people with similar needs to yours?
  • What is their educational background? 
  • What methods do they use to treat patients with your needs? 
  • Can they prescribe medications should you need them?
  • How long have they been practicing?
  • Do they accept your insurance?

Psychologists and therapists share similar skills and motivations. They aim to help people live better, healthier lives, and promote emotional well-being by treating various mental health conditions. But while they tend to be grouped together, there are important distinctions between the two professions. Therapists are often certified counselors, coming from different backgrounds and working in a range of settings. Psychologists go through more academic learning and may work outside of patient care. 

Whether you choose to see a therapist or psychologist, your relationship is important. Evaluate a mental health professional based on your unique personality and needs before committing to a treatment regimen. 

References

  1. American Psychological Association. (2017). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral
  2. American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/psychotherapy-professionals
  3. Arnow, B. A., Steidtmann, D., Blasey, C., Manber, R., Constantino, M. J., Klein, D. N., et al. (2013). The relationship between the therapeutic alliance and treatment outcome in two distinct psychotherapies for chronic depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(4), 627–638. doi: 10.1037/a0031530. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23339536/
  4. Carey, T. A., Kelly, R. E., Mansell, W., & Tai, S. J. (2012). What’s therapeutic about the therapeutic relationship? A hypothesis for practice informed by Perceptual Control Theory. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 5(2-3), 47–59. doi: 10.1017/s1754470x12000037. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-cognitive-behaviour-therapist/article
  5. David, D., Cristea, I., & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). Why cognitive behavioral therapy is the current gold standard of psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00004. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018. 00004/full#note3
  6. Irvine, A., Drew, P., Bower, P., Brooks, H., Gellatly, J., Armitage, C. J., et al. (2020). Are there interactional differences between telephone and face-to-face psychological therapy? A systematic review of comparative studies. Journal of Affective Disorders, 265, 120–131. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2020.01.057. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7049904/
  7. Markowitz, J., Milrod, B., Heckman, T., Bergman, M., & Zalman, H. (2020). Psychotherapy at a distance. The American Journal of Psychiatry. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20050557. Retrieved from https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20050557
  8. NAMI. (2020). Types of mental health professionals. Retrieved from https://www. nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments/Types-of-Mental-Health-Professionals
  9. National Conference of State Legislators. (2020). Licensed professional counselors authority to diagnose postcard. Retrieved from https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/licensed-professional-counselors-authority-to-diagnose-postcard.aspx.
  10. Saxon, D., Firth, N., & Barkham, M. (2016). The relationship between therapist effects and therapy delivery factors: Therapy modality, dosage, and non-completion. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 44(5), 705–715. doi: 10.1007/s10488-016-0750-5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5550525/
  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, April 9). Psychologists: occupational outlook handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
  12. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, April 9). Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors: occupational outlook handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors
  13. Zarbo, C., Tasca, G. A., Cattafi, F., & Compare, A. (2016). Integrative psychotherapy works. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02021. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707273/