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What's the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Therapist (and Other Mental Health Professionals)?

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When you think of therapy, you may think of just a therapist being involved. But did you know that therapy can involve working with many different mental health and medical professionals — a care team — to help make sure you’re getting the best support and treatment? 

There are two categories that most mental health professionals fall into — those who can provide therapy but don’t prescribe medications (you may see them on a weekly basis), and those who can provide therapy and prescribe medications (you may see them less often). Knowing the difference between the mental health professionals who may be on your care team can help you better understand how they can support you throughout your therapy journey. Let’s dive into these categories to learn more. 

Mental health professionals who provide therapy only

  • Psychologist: A psychologist uses clinical interviews along with psychological evaluations and testing to evaluate your mental health and make a diagnosis. Their therapeutic techniques could include talk therapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and other forms of therapy. Psychologists must have a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in a field of psychology or a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology).   
  • Clinical social workers: Clinical social workers go through specific training programs to learn how to evaluate your mental health. Like psychologists, clinical social workers may use therapeutic techniques such as talk therapy and other forms of therapy to treat you.  They are also trained in case management and advocacy services. Clinical social workers must have an M.S.W. (master’s degree in social work). 
  • Mental health counselors: Mental health counselors are also trained to evaluate your mental health and may use the same therapeutic techniques as psychologists and clinical social workers to treat mental health conditions. Depending on their treatment setting, they could be called therapists or clinicians, too. Mental health counselors, therapists, and clinicians must have a M.S. or M.A. (master’s degree) in a mental health-related field such as psychology, mental health counseling, marriage, or family therapy. 
  • Marriage and family therapists: These therapists have special education and training in marriage and family therapy, and can diagnose and provide individual, couples, and group counseling. Their therapeutic techniques may also include talk therapy and other forms of therapy. Marriage and family therapists must have a master’s degree. 

Mental health professionals who provide therapy and prescribe medication

  • Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists, unlike therapists, are licensed medical doctors. They can diagnose mental health conditions, provide therapy, and prescribe and monitor medications. To be a psychiatrist, you must be an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), and complete residency training in psychiatry. 
  • Psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners: These types of nurse practitioners can assess, diagnose, and provide therapy for mental health conditions. They can also prescribe and provide medication management in certain states. Depending on where they work, some psychiatric nurse practitioners are required to be supervised by a licensed psychiatrist. Psychiatric nurse practitioners must also have an M.S. (Master of Science) or Ph.D. in nursing, with a specialized focus on psychiatry.  

Mental health professionals who prescribe medication but don’t provide therapy 

  • PCPs (primary care physicians): PCPs are doctors with an M.D. or D.O. PCPs can prescribe medication to help treat mental health conditions, but do not provide therapy or have training in therapy. They may refer you to a therapist or another mental health professional if they feel you could benefit from specialized treatment and support, such as talk therapy. They’ll work with this mental health professional to figure out the best treatment plan for your condition.  
  • Family NPs (nurse practitioners): Similar to PCPs, family NPs can provide general medical services. Each state has different laws for the kind of medical services they can provide. Family NPs can also prescribe medication, and may also refer you to a mental health professional for specialized treatment if it makes sense for your condition. Together, family NPs and your mental health professional will decide on the best treatment for your needs. Family NPs must have an M.S. or Ph.D. in nursing. 
  • Psychiatric pharmacists: Psychiatric pharmacists are advanced-practice pharmacists who specialize in mental health care. If they work in a state and practice setting that allows it, psychiatric pharmacists can prescribe or recommend medications for mental health conditions. Unlike psychiatrists, psychiatric pharmacists don’t provide therapy. All psychiatric pharmacists must have a PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy degree). 

Understanding the different roles of mental health professionals can help make sure you’re getting the right mental health support for your needs. No matter what kind of mental health professional you see first, they are all qualified to answer your questions and point you in the right direction. What’s most important is that you’re open and honest about how you’re feeling so they can decide which course of treatment is best for you. If seeing a therapist is your first step, this First Therapy Session FAQ can help you prepare for your first session.

Last Updated:
Published:
First Published:
June 22, 2022

Sources:

Mayo Clinic. (2017, May 16). Mental health providers: Tips on finding one. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health-providers/art-20045530

Mental Health America. (n.d.). Types of mental health professionals. https://mhanational.org/types-mental-health-professionals

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020, April). Types of mental health professionals. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments/Types-of-Mental-Health-Professionals

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