Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: Understanding Their Roles in Mental Health Care

Mental health is vital to our overall well-being, and seeking professional help is often a brave step towards self-improvement. When it comes to psychiatric care, many of us encounter the terms “psychiatrist” and “therapist” and wonder what distinguishes one from the other. Both types of professionals are instrumental in providing mental health services, but they differ significantly in their training, approach to treatment, and the scope of their practice.

Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: The Main Differences

Key Takeaways

  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors with the ability to prescribe medications, focusing on biological aspects of mental health.
  • Therapists offer talk therapy and may come from diverse educational backgrounds but cannot prescribe medication.
  • Understanding the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist can help us choose the appropriate professional for our mental health needs.

Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: Understanding Their Roles in Mental Health Care Pin

Defining the Roles

What is a Psychiatrist?

Education and Credentials: A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological conditions.

Scope of Practice:

  • Diagnosis: They are equipped to conduct thorough medical and psychological examinations to diagnose complex mental health issues.
  • Medication Management: Psychiatrists can prescribe and monitor psychiatric medications.
  • Psychotherapy: Some psychiatrists may provide psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy.
  • Additional Treatments: They may also offer treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

What is a Therapist?

Education and Credentials: Therapists can represent a range of professionals in the mental health field, typically holding a minimum of a master’s degree in disciplines like psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, or counseling. Credentialing varies but often includes licensure such as LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), or LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist).

Scope of Practice:

  • Counseling: Therapists provide talk therapy, which encompasses various techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or other specialized modalities.
  • Support for a Range of Issues: They address emotional, behavioral, and mental issues but do not prescribe medication.
  • Collaborative Care: Therapists may work with psychiatrists or other health care providers for comprehensive care, especially if there is a need for medication.

Educational Pathways

Psychiatrist Education

To become a psychiatrist, one must first earn a bachelor’s degree, usually with a focus in the sciences. Following that, the aspirant must complete a medical degree (MD or DO) which typically takes four years. After medical school, a residency in psychiatry, which spans four years, is required. During this period, residents are trained in various subspecialties such as child/adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, and forensic psychiatry.

  • Bachelor’s Degree: 4 years (Science focus)
  • Medical School (MD or DO): 4 years
  • Psychiatry Residency: 4 years

Therapist Education

Therapists may come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Initially, like psychiatrists, therapists also obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, the subject of study can range from psychology to social work or related fields. Subsequently, therapists need to complete a master’s degree or doctoral program in their chosen field of therapy, such as psychology, counseling, or social work. The duration of these programs varies, with master’s generally taking two to three years and a doctoral degree taking longer, about four to six years.

  • Bachelor’s Degree: 4 years (Various fields)
  • Master’s Degree: 2-3 years (Counseling, Psychology, etc.)
  • Doctoral Programs: 4-6 years (Optional)

Therapists must also get licensed in their state, which requires additional supervised clinical hours and passing a licensure exam.

Licensing and Certification

Psychiatrist Licensing

To practice medicine, psychiatrists must obtain a medical license in the country or region where they work. In the United States, for instance, we see that psychiatrists are first required to complete a medical degree (M.D. or D.O.), followed by a residency in psychiatry which typically lasts four years.

Only after passing a standardized national exam, such as the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for M.D.s or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) for D.O.s, can a psychiatrist apply for a state license. Additionally, many choose to become board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), which further validates their expertise through rigorous exams and peer evaluations.

Therapist Certification

Therapists, unlike psychiatrists, do not prescribe medication and therefore do not need a medical license. Instead, they pursue different educational paths depending on their practice area, such as a Master’s in Clinical Social Work (MSW), Psychology (Psy.D or Ph.D.), Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), or Mental Health Counseling. Each of these credentials requires a master’s or doctoral degree in their respective field.

Upon completing their education, therapists must accumulate a certain number of supervised clinical hours and pass a professional exam pertinent to their specialty—for example, the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) exam, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) exam, or Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) exam. Certification for therapists is regulated by state boards, and must be maintained through ongoing education known as Continuing Education Units (CEUs).

Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: Example Sentences

Examples of Psychiatrist

  • He made an appointment with a psychiatrist to discuss his anxiety.
  • The psychiatrist prescribed a new medication during her last visit.
  • She found that talking to her psychiatrist was very helpful for her mental health.
  • The psychiatrist specialized in adolescent behavioral disorders.
  • After the assessment, the psychiatrist recommended a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • It’s important to be honest with your psychiatrist about all of your symptoms.
  • The psychiatrist updated his treatment plan to include both therapy and medication.

Examples of Therapist

  • She felt more at ease after speaking with her therapist about her concerns.
  • The therapist provided useful coping strategies for managing stress.
  • He scheduled weekly sessions with his therapist to work through his phobias.
  • Her therapist recommended mindfulness exercises to help with anxiety.
  • The therapist helped him understand the root of his emotional responses.
  • Finding the right therapist can be a crucial step in one’s mental health journey.
  • The couple decided to see a therapist to improve their communication skills.

Related Confused Words with Psychiatrist vs. Therapist

Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD or DO) who specializes in mental health and is qualified to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. They can prescribe medications, conduct physical exams, and provide a range of therapies, including psychotherapy.

A psychologist, on the other hand, typically holds a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D.) and is an expert in human behavior, mental health assessment, diagnosis, and providing psychotherapy. Psychologists cannot prescribe medications in most jurisdictions, except for a few U.S. states where they can prescribe after receiving additional training and certification.

Therapist vs. Counselor

The terms “therapist” and “counselor” are often used interchangeably, but there can be distinctions in their qualifications, functions, and the contexts in which they work:


  • A broad term that encompasses professionals who provide therapy. This can include psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and licensed professional counselors.
  • They may specialize in various types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, or others.
  • Therapists often work with clients over a longer term to address more complex mental health issues.


  • Typically refers to professionals who offer guidance and support in specific areas, such as mental health, education, career, or substance abuse.
  • They may have a master’s degree in counseling or a related field and often hold certifications or licenses in their specialty.
  • Counselors may focus more on providing strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with specific life issues or transitions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are three key distinctions between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication and focus on the biological aspects of mental disorders. Psychologists often hold a doctoral degree in psychology and concentrate on psychotherapy and behavioral interventions. Psychologists cannot prescribe medication in most states.

When deciding who to see for depression, should I choose a therapist or a psychologist?

The decision depends on the individual’s needs. If one is considering medication as part of their treatment, a psychiatrist might be more suitable. For therapy that utilizes talking and behavior change strategies without the immediate consideration of medication, either a psychologist or a licensed therapist could be a good fit.

What are the differences in salary between a psychiatrist and a therapist?

Psychiatrists typically earn a higher salary than therapists due to their medical degree and prescribing authority. Salaries can vary widely based on geographic location, experience, and type of practice.

For treating anxiety, should I consult with a therapist or a psychiatrist?

It depends on the severity and the individual preferences for treatment. For medication and a medical approach to anxiety, a psychiatrist would be appropriate. If one is looking for coping strategies and talk therapy, a therapist or psychologist may be beneficial.

How do the roles of a psychiatrist and a therapist differ in mental health care?

A psychiatrist’s role is often focused on diagnosis and medical management of mental health conditions, including the prescription of medications. A therapist’s role is primarily to provide psychotherapy and counseling to help clients work through emotional and psychological challenges.

Is it common practice for therapists to communicate with psychiatrists about a patient’s care?

Yes, it is common and often considered best practice for therapists to communicate with psychiatrists when they are both involved in a patient’s care. Collaboration ensures that treatment plans are comprehensive and that both medication and therapy are effectively aligned.

Last Updated on January 8, 2024

Leave a Comment