Psychologists and therapists differ in terms of their education and ability to make a mental health diagnosis, among other factors. Choosing one can depend on the concerns you want to address.
Whether you’re new to therapy, getting back into it, or just wondering if you’re seeing the right type of mental health professional, you may have come across different terms, like “psychologist” and “therapist.”
Since these titles are often used interchangeably, you may be wondering how these types of professionals differ.
Learning the key similarities and differences of psychologists and therapist may help you make the right decision for your mental health needs.
On a broad level, both psychologists and therapists are specialists who can help you:
- improve your mental health
- boost emotional well-being
- address behavior disorders
You meet with one of these providers regularly to talk about what you’re going through. They listen and provide professional guidance to help you better understand your individual struggles and how to overcome them.
Both types of specialists show good outcomes when it comes to helping people.
Both psychologists and therapists must become licensed in order to practice in their respective fields. To do so, they must undergo education and training in therapeutic techniques to help people address any mental, emotional, and behavioral health concerns. Though exact training requirements can vary from speciality to speciality.
The main differences between psychologists and therapists involve their:
- level of education and training
- authority to make mental health diagnoses
- approach to treatment
Licensed therapists must have, at minimum, a master’s degree in a field related to psychotherapy. Psychologists must have a doctorate-level degree such as a PhD or PsyD.
But there is uncertainty about these terms, even among people who practice in these fields. Some psychologists with doctorate-level education will take on the title of therapist or psychotherapist. Some therapists, who typically have master’s-level training in psychotherapy, may refer to themselves as counselors.
In fact, referring to specialists without doctorate-level training as counselors rather than therapists is a general practice in the mental health field. Licensed counselors usually have a master’s degree.
Here’s a look at how master’s-level counselors and therapists are different than psychologists and doctorate-level specialists with more advanced training.
The deep dive
Many psychologists are focused on treatment. But their approaches are also likely to be informed by psychological research.
In particular, psychologists’ education and training are informed by research areas such as human behavior, development, and personality, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
A psychologist’s training also covers approaches to psychotherapy and assessment. In most U.S. states, psychologists do not prescribe medications.
Counselors and therapists are also focused on treatment. They are required to pursue academic training that’s relevant to providing mental health services.
However, the minimum education and training needed is shorter, and may be more focused on therapeutic approaches rather than research.
In practice, this means that a psychologist may have more in-depth knowledge about the science and academic literature of psychology as a basis for their treatment.
At the same time, therapists may carry strong theoretical backgrounds that help people work through difficulties impacting their mental health. Counselors may also help their clients work through systemic difficulties, such as those that occur within families, schools, or other communities.
Like counselors and therapists, psychologists can help you understand or cope with mental health concerns. They may be interested in more academic approaches connected to recent research.
Depending on the state, some licensed counselors may have the authority to make mental health diagnoses. In states that don’t allow licensed counselors to diagnose conditions, a counselor or therapist may be able to provide a referral to a psychologist or other qualified specialist who can offer a diagnosis.
Therapists and psychologists may both rely heavily on talk therapy techniques to help you work through concerns.
Many (but not all) psychologists use talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This can help you become more aware of negative thinking patterns and learn positive ones.
Many counselors also use forms of talk therapy, such as in:
- clinical social work
- environments like outpatient clinics serving the Veteran’s Health Administration
- private practice
What do psychologists treat?
A psychologist may help with mental health concerns in the following ways:
- diagnose a mental health condition based on observations and surveys
- research your condition and provide treatment recommendations
- provide therapies that may help your condition
- help you work through emotions and sensations so you can better understand them and make constructive decisions from them
- work with a psychiatrist to get prescription treatments (if needed)
What do therapists treat?
Rather than academic research, a therapist may be more likely to focus on:
- gaining a big picture of your life and mental health concerns
- helping you discuss your feelings and address them in a constructive way
- guiding you through healthy decision-making processes
- using talk therapy techniques to offer support
In some states, licensed master’s-level therapists or counselors have the authority to make certain mental health diagnoses. Or they may be able to refer you to another professional if a diagnosis is needed.
All licensed psychologists and therapists are required to have advanced degrees.
Common master’s-level degrees include:
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy
- Master of Arts in Psychology
In addition, psychologists typically have doctorate-level psychology training, such as a doctorate (PhD) or doctorate in psychology (PsyD) degree. Psychologists must also undergo a post-doctoral residency.
Psychologists, therapists, and counselors must all have state licenses and certifications for the type of treatments they offer.
This means that someone without a license is not allowed to call themselves a psychologist, therapist, or counselor. Some older psychologists who are at master’s level but licensed were previously grandfathered in, but that practice has since stopped.
A psychologist is considered a type of scientist or scientist-practitioner who studies human behavior and patterns of thoughts and emotions.
Most psychologists offer therapy to clients in private practice or hospital settings, while others may only conduct scientific research. Others may conduct structured assessments, like personality or intelligence tests.
Training may also vary based on the field the professional works in. Some psychologists, such as industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists, study human behavior in workplaces and may not study individual mental health.
At a minimum, a doctoral degree is needed for someone to be considered a practicing psychologist. Titles can vary by state — in some states, you can call yourself a psychotherapist with a master’s degree, but you need a PhD or a PsyD to be a psychologist.
PhD and PsyD degrees also qualify specialists to conduct psychological or neuropsychological assessments in order to clarify mental health diagnoses and create tailored treatment recommendations.
Many PhDs with this training can also do research, teach, or do clinical work. It’s the same as with medical professionals — they can enter into research through fellowships, but they can also do a sufficient amount of research in graduate school to qualify for university-level research positions.
PsyD specialists may focus on therapeutic treatment or assessment, but their training tends to center on how to understand research for treatment applications. PhD specialists, on the other hand, are more likely to emphasize conducting the research itself.
Still, a PhD or PsyD requires years of additional training before obtaining a license to help clients in either a private practice or a clinic.
Psychologists may study one or more of the following specializations during their education and training, often with application to treatment:
- developmental psychology
- intellectual and developmental disabilities
- decision science
- social psychology
- clinical psychology
- cognitive psychology
- industrial/organizational psychology
This list of specializations isn’t exhaustive. The field of psychology continues to grow as methods of understanding and treating the human mind become more advanced.
Psychologists must also maintain continuing education credits (CEUs) in order to keep up with current research and treatment. The amount and type of CEUs vary by state of licensure.
Counselors and therapists may also be required to get CEUs when dictated by their particular license.
Some psychologists only conduct research rather than providing therapy, whereas all therapists and counselors provide some type of therapy to their clients.
Licenced therapists or counselors have education and training in a field relevant to psychotherapy. There are a range of degrees, covering fields like social work, marriage and family therapy, and counselling psychology.
All therapists who offer care and treatment must have a minimum of a master’s degree. Some might also hold doctorates in their specialty.
To become licensed, a therapist or counselor will go through additional training in their specialty, along with taking exams. Licenses are typically overseen by individual states to help regulate therapy practices.
While psychologists tend to have more advanced education and training, this does not mean they‘re superior to therapists or counselors.
Education is just one consideration. Choosing the right professional for therapy depends on a variety of other factors, too.
Overall, therapists and psychologists help you achieve your individual therapy goals. Both tend to be open-minded, empathetic, and understanding. They generally allow your personal needs to decide the course of your counseling, therapy, or treatment.
Therapists typically use a more holistic approach. This means discussing your whole person, allowing you to focus on your emotional state. Psychologists may focus more on how thoughts and behaviors interact with your environment.
Therapist and psychologist specialties
Subspecialties that tend to be shared by therapists, counselors, and psychologists include:
- play therapy (for young children)
- marriage, divorce, or couples counseling
- family counseling
- grief counseling
- group therapy
- cultural competency training
- career counseling
- community counseling
- school counseling
- substance abuse
- addiction counseling
Choosing between a psychologist and therapist depends on what concerns you’re hoping to address. Keep in mind that the terms “psychologist,” “therapist,” and “counselor” indicate the professional’s level of education and training.
Yet all of these professionals are valuable to the mental health field, and they can help clients in different ways.
If you’re considering working with a particular therapist or psychologist, feel free to ask them about their license and training. You can also ask what approaches they take, and what concerns they specialize in.
Either a therapist or psychologist is a good starting point for:
- general counseling
- divorce or marriage concerns
Both psychologists and therapists may be beneficial for treating mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.
In addition, you can find both psychologists and therapists who specialize in group therapy, which includes larger groups of people working through similar concerns.
You may benefit from group therapy by connecting with others and problem-solving together.
Group therapy is available for children as well as adults. Some people benefit from weekly group therapy sessions in addition to individual ones.
You might consider a psychologist if you want to make concrete changes to your thought patterns and behaviors, though many counselors can also address these concerns.
If a mental health condition is causing severe symptoms that interfere with your daily life, you might consider choosing a clinical psychologist due to their higher-level training.
A psychologist with a PsyD or a PhD can help you:
- manage your symptoms
- address undiagnosed mental health conditions
- supplement long-term mental healthcare with recommendations based on academic literature or research
You may also want to consider costs when choosing between a psychologist or therapist.
Here are some tips when it comes to anticipating costs for seeing either a psychologist or therapist:
- Be aware of fees. A private practice may charge higher fees, especially if specialists have many years of experience or are popular with a large clientele.
- Know that reputation may influence cost. A private practitioner may be worth the additional costs if you are seeking a particular therapist or psychologist based on their reputation.
- Try community resources or apps. Community clinics or counseling apps may be less costly, offering more affordable therapy options that charge flat fees per session or a monthly subscription fee.
- Try group therapy. Group therapies may be less costly than individual therapy. They may also introduce you to communities of people who share your concerns and may understand what you’re going through.
- Stay in your coverage network. If you’re insured, check with your insurance company before you see a specialist to make sure your provider is within your coverage network. Out-of-network professionals will cost you more out of pocket.
- Ask about paying on a sliding scale. Many therapists and psychologists offer sliding fees if you don’t have insurance to help you afford your treatment.
Ultimately, choosing between a psychologist or a therapist depends on your needs and overall goals. Either type of mental health professional can help you establish and achieve therapy goals.
No matter which professional you end up choosing, make sure you’re comfortable with them so that you can build a solid foundation for successful long-term care.