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.”
Both psychologists and therapists have, to some extent, undergone education and training in therapeutic techniques to help people address mental health concerns.
Since these titles are often used interchangeably, you may be wondering how these types of professionals differ.
Psychologists and therapists have different education, training, and approaches in their practices. That said, both types of specialists show good outcomes when it comes to helping people.
Learning the key similarities and differences of psychologists and therapist may help you make the right decision for your mental health needs.
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 specialists without graduate training beyond master’s degrees or certifications, on the other hand, 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.
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 focused on treatment, but many are also informed by academic literature and psychological research. They’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 are 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 includes clinical-based treatments.
Counselors and therapists are also focused on treatment. However, 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 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 using academic approaches consisting of recent research, rather than the humanities and long-term studies.
Another difference is that a psychologist may be able to make a mental health diagnosis, while a therapist typically does not diagnose conditions.
A counselor or therapist can make a diagnosis, however, if they are supervised by a psychologist who can agree with that diagnosis. This is especially true in an environment like a mental health clinic or hospital.
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 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
- environments like outpatient clinics serving the Veteran’s Health Administration
- 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 doctorate (PhD) and doctorate in psychology (PsyD) degrees.
Each must also 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. 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 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 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.
Psychologists who offer medical care of some sort, whether independently or in clinical settings, typically hold a PsyD or a PhD.
PsyD specialists may also 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.
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.
Therapists may not be required to get CEUs so unless 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.
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 terms “therapist” and “counselor” can be used interchangeably in many cases.
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 challenges to decide the course of your counseling, therapy, or treatment.
Therapists typically use a more holistic approach. This means discusses 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 doctorates in their specialty.
In addition to education, therapists tend to hold certificates or licenses related to their specialty. This means that 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.
Some therapists also 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 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 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.
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.
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 with more open-ended discussions about your feelings.
A psychologist with a PsyD or a PhD can help you address undiagnosed mental health conditions and 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 influences cost. 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 in this case.
- Try community resources. 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. 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.