When looking for therapy, you may come across different mental health professionals like psychologists and therapists.
Both psychologists and therapists have undergone education and training in therapeutic techniques to some extent in order to help clients resolve mental health issues.
These titles are often used interchangeably. Psychologists and therapists have different education, training, and approaches in their practices, although both types of specialists show good outcomes in helping people.
Learn the key similarities and differences to help you make the right decision for your mental health needs.
There is uncertainty about these terms, even among people who practice in this fields.
Some psychologists with doctorate-level education will take on the title of therapist or psychotherapist. Some specialists without graduate training beyond master’s degrees or certifications may refer to themselves as “counselors.”
Referring to specialists without doctorate-level training as counselors rather than therapists is a general practice in the mental health field.
In this article, we’ll use “counselor” in some places to refer to therapists who don’t have the advanced training that psychologists and doctorate-level specialists have.
The deep dive
Many psychologists are treatment-focused, but many are also informed byacademic literature and psychological research. The’’re a lot like medical doctors who look to medical research to guide treatment. However, psychologists do not prescribe medications.
In particular, psychologists’ education and training is informed by behavioral science research, which provides insights into how people with mental health conditions respond to stress and other external factors. Behavioral science also encompasses clinical based treatments.
Counselors and therapists are also treatment-focused, but they tend to look more to philosophical and rhetorical theories, along with clinical observations over long periods of time, 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 their clients 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 help you understand or cope with mental health issues using academic approaches consisting of recent research, rather than the humanities and long-term studies.
Also, a psychologist may be able to make a mental health diagnosis, while a therapist typically does not.
But a counselor or therapist can make a diagnosis if they’re supervised by a psychologist who can agree with the diagnosis, especially in an environment like a mental health clinic or hospital.
Both therapists and psychologists may rely heavily on talk therapy techniques to help you work through struggles.
Many (but not all) psychologists use talk therapy called 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 CBT, such as in clinical social work, in environments like outpatient clinics serving the Veteran’s Health Administration, or in private practice.
All psychologists and therapists have some level of higher education.
Most hold advanced degrees. Common degrees include the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) license, which require a master’s degree, and doctorate-level psychology training, such as PsyD and MD degrees.
Each must also have state licenses and certifications for the type of treatments they offer.
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 they work in. Some psychologists, such as industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists, study human behavior in workplaces and may not study individual mental health at all.
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.
A PhD is also required for psychologists to do research, but PhD and PsyD degrees also qualify specialists to be psychotherapists or conduct structured assessments.
Many PhDs with this training can also do research, teach, or do clinical work. It’s the same as with medicine — you can enter into research through fellowships, but you can also do a sufficient amount of research in graduate school to qualify for university-level research positions.
Psychologists who offer medical care of some sort, whether independently or in clinical settings, typically hold a doctorate in psychology (PsyD) or a PhD.
Having a PsyD means that a psychologist is treatment-focused, yet they also use science and research to inform their application of psychology. This is different from a PhD, where professionals learn how to conductresearch too.
PsyD specialists can also focus on therapeutic treatment or assessment, but their training tends to focus on how to understand research for treatment applications, while PhD specialists 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.
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.
Some psychologists conduct research only. But all therapists or counselors provide some therapy to their clients.
Some therapists or counselors may have education and training in psychology. Others may study childhood development, sociology, education, or related fields without an extensive background in human psychology. The term “therapist” and “counselor” can be used interchangeably in many cases.
While psychologists tend to have more advanced education and training, this doesn‘t mean they‘re superior to therapists or counselors. Education is just one consideration, but 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, allowing your personal challenges to decide the course of your counseling, therapy, or treatment.
Therapists typically use a more holistic approach 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.
All therapists who offer care and treatment must have a minimum of a master’s degree. Some might also hold PhDs in their specialty.
In addition to education, therapists tend to hold certificates or licenses related to their specialty. This means that the therapist or counselor will go through additional training in their specialty, along with exams. Licenses are typically overseen by individual states to help regulate therapy practices.
Some therapists also specialize in group therapy, which include larger groups of clients working through similar issues.
You may benefit from group therapy by connecting with others and problem-solving together.
Group therapies are available for children as well as adults. Some people benefit from weekly group therapy sessions in addition to individual ones.
Choosing between a psychologist and therapist depends on what issues you’re hoping to address. Keep in mind that the terms psychologist, therapist, and counselor indicate the level of education and training. All are valuable to the mental health field, helping clients in different ways.
Either therapist or psychologist is a good starting point for:
- general counseling
- marriage issues
Both psychologists and therapists may be beneficial for treating mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
You might consider a psychologist if you want to make concrete changes to thought patterns and behaviors, but many counselors can also address these concerns with more open-ended discussions about your feelings.
A specialist with a PsyD or psychologist with a PhD can help you address undiagnosed mental health issues and supplement long-term mental health care 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:
- A private practice may charge higher fees, especially if specialists have many years of experience or are popular with a large clientele.
- A private practitioner may be worth the additional costs if you are seeking a particular therapist or psychologist based on their reputation. You may also experience greater confidentiality.
- 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.
- 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.
- Check with your insurance company before you see a specialist to make sure your provider is within your coverage network.
- Many therapists and psychologists both offer sliding fees if you don’t have insurance to help you afford your treatment.
Ultimately, choosing between a psychologist or a therapist ultimately depends on your needs and overall goals. Either type of mental health professional can help you establish and achieve therapy goals.
And 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.