Difference Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists, And Therapists

“Baby step onto the elevator. Baby steps into the elevator. I’m in the elevator. [. . .] AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” —Bill Murray, What About Bob? (1991)

In A Nutshell

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to mental health, and it is especially confusing to the layperson in terms of the various professions that make up the field. Even being allowed the privilege to call yourself a psychologist will take many years of study, psychiatrists are mainly concerned with diagnosing mental health problems and prescribing medication, and therapists provide counseling but may not actually be psychologists at all.

The Whole Bushel

A psychiatrist’s field has a lot to do with mental health but very little to do with the field of psychology. In fact, the path for a psychiatrist doesn’t involve any obtaining a degree in the psychological arts, but actually requires you to get a medical degree. However, if you are an aspiring psychiatrist, getting your M.D. is just the first step. From there you need several more years of education and hands-on experience before you can be licensed and start your own practice. Psychiatrists also don’t spend all that much time on psychotherapy as a general rule and usually prefer understanding people’s mental health issues as something that can be treated with the proper medication. Of course, their training is very comprehensive, so they may end up leading a team of other mental health professionals.

Psychologists, on the other hand, are an entirely different breed. Many people are under the impression that someone who gets a bachelor’s or master’s degree can call themselves a psychologist, but this is not the case. To be a psychologist you actually need to obtain a Ph.D. There is also a mistaken impression that most of psychology involves some sort of talking therapy. The truth is that while many psychologists specialize in counseling, there are also many who go a different route. Psychologists teach, do research, perform studies, and provide many other psychology-related services other than therapy. Also, it should be noted that in some states in the USA a psychologist can be licensed to prescribe medication like a psychiatrist, but they must go through several years of extra training first.

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And last but not least are the trusty therapists who sit you down and talk to you about your problems. This is perhaps one of the most confusing. While many psychologists do perform the role of a therapist, there are also many people who are able to perform mental health counseling who do not have a degree in psychology or psychiatry. Someone can simply obtain a master’s degree in counseling psychology to perform mental health services, but many states require extra study on top of the master’s degree. Another path is through social work. Those with a master’s in social work can provide certain counseling services in many states and in others can be licensed as a full counselor by doing extra studying and passing certifications. These people are called licensed clinical social workers.

Minnesota in particular has some odd rules. While it has licensing systems for counseling, the state laws also make it okay for people who don’t actually have a license in counseling to provide such services. This has allowed people like Marcus Bachmann, husband of Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, to provide therapy programs meant to cure people of their homosexuality for decades without actually having a license to practice the craft. This, of course, isn’t particularly good for the mental health field. If we are to properly address these issues in the modern age, our society needs more control over who holds the reins of treatment, not less.

Show Me The Proof

Michigan Psychiatric Society: What is a Psychiatrist?
American Psychological Association: What do practicing psychologists do?
What is counseling psychology?
New York State Social Work: Licensed Clinical Social Worker License Requirements
Star Tribune: Marcus Bachmann says his clinics not anti-gay