Therapy FAQ

Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?

Let’s take a look at the differences between psychiatrists vs. therapists, so that you can make the best decision when choosing a mental health provider that suits your individual therapeutic needs. 

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 01, 2024

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Choosing to seek out support for your mental health can be challenging enough on its own, let alone navigating what all the terms and therapist qualifications mean. 

That’s OK. We are here to help.

In this article, we will look at the differences between psychiatrists vs. therapists, so that you can make the best decision when choosing a mental health provider that suits your individual therapeutic needs. 

What Is a Psychiatrist? 

Essentially, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders.

Just like a medical doctor who specializes in heart health is called a cardiologist, a medical doctor whose area of focus is the mind is called a psychiatrist.

Let’s take a closer look at a psychiatrist’s training, licensure, and specializations. 

Psychiatrist Specialized Training and Licensure Requirements 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has additional specialized training in mental health

After graduating medical school, they must complete a four year psychiatry residency under the supervision of an experienced psychiatrist. 

To become a “board certified” psychiatrist, they also have to pass an exam given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. In order to keep that certification, psychiatrists have to be re-certified every ten years.

Psychiatrist Practice Areas and Specializations

Psychiatrists may choose to specialize in a specific area of care or patient population within the field of mental health. 

For example, it’s very common for psychiatrists to choose between treating children and adolescents or specializing in adult psychiatry. They may also choose to specialize in treating specific issues, such as addiction and substance use disorders. 

Beyond choosing a specialty, a psychiatrist is able to diagnose a wide variety of mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, among others. 

Because they are medical doctors with extensive medical knowledge and experience, psychiatrists can also prescribe medications. A psychiatrist may prescribe an antidepressant to a client with depression, similar to a primary care physician prescribing medications to treat high blood pressure. 

How Psychiatrists Differ From Other Mental Health Providers

The use of medication to manage mental health disorders is the key clinical difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist, according to Deborah Harland, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW at Grow Therapy who specializes in trauma recovery. 

The key difference is psychiatrists are medical doctors, in addition to having training in clinical psychology; therefore they often focus on prescribing medication and management of medication. Therapists do not have a medical degree and do not prescribe medication,” says Harland. 

Just because therapists do not prescribe medication does not mean that they can’t help clients tremendously with their mental health. In fact, they can.

Let’s take an up-close look at therapists now.

What Is a Therapist?

A therapist is a trained mental health professional who holds either a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, social work, or a similar field. They focus on providing different kinds of talk therapy to help their clients manage the mental issues they are facing.

Therapist Specialized Training and Licensure Requirements

Training and licensure requirements can vary significantly among therapists, and that is because therapists often focus on one particular client population or issue. Some focus on social work, family therapy, trauma, psychological testing, or other specialty areas.

However, there are key similarities in training that allow therapists to adequately manage mental health disorders.

To gain a better understanding of the training that therapists undergo, we spoke with Alan Deibel, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) with Grow Therapy who specializes in helping his clients manage anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. 

According to Deibel, most therapists undergo extensive schooling and training with a large number of clinical hours being required, two years of supervised experience after graduation, and the passing of multiple licensing exams. 

“As a therapist in Illinois, I have an LCPC. This required all of the above and took a total of about nine years to become fully licensed,” says Deibel. 

Therapist Practice Areas and Specializations

Therapists specialize in a variety of therapy types that allow them to help their clients in managing the troubling symptoms of mental health disorders. These areas of focus often include:

The goal of some therapies is to change behavior, while other therapies seek to explore where harmful thoughts are coming from and work on ways to change the associated thought patterns.

According to Harland, “The most common approach is ‘talk therapy’ or Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), as it has been a gold standard for many decades.” 

However, many other therapies are used depending on the disorder being treated and the goals of each client. 

How Therapists Differ From Other Mental Health Providers

Therapists are highly skilled professionals who are able to determine which therapies are best for each client, and this is part of what makes them such specialized mental health providers. 

When asked about how therapists help their clients without the use of prescription medicine, Deibel says, “Therapists focus their energy on talk therapy and providing new behavioral and cognitive tips and strategies to improve functioning and to cope with emotions.” 

He goes on to say that therapists typically meet with their clients more often (once per week) and for longer durations (45 minutes to 1 hour) than do psychiatrists. This is because therapists focus on talk therapy while psychiatrists may focus on medication management. 

It is worth noting, however, that oftentimes a combination of talk therapy and med management might provide the best results depending on a person’s situation.

How to Choose Between a Psychiatrist and a Therapist

Now that you understand the educational and clinical differences between psychiatrists vs. therapists, how do you decide which one to see?

Key Differences Between Psychiatrists and Therapists

Let’s start with a side-by-side comparison to get a better understanding of the differences between these professionals.

Education and Licensure

Psychiatrists  Therapists
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who hold a doctoral degree and have completed additional training to specialize in issues of the mind. 
  • Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors who have also completed an additional four years in psychiatric residency.
  • Therapists come from a variety of backgrounds. Some hold degrees in psychology, social work, or similar fields. 
  • To specialize, they pass licensing boards that vary a bit depending on their area of focus. Each licensed specialty has unique education and experience requirements decided by the licensing organization.

Differences in How Mental Health Disorders Are Viewed

Psychiatrists  Therapists
  • Psychiatrists have been to medical school and therefore have a broader understanding of mental health. Psychiatrists tend to see the brain as a physical organ that requires treatment (medication).
  • Therapists tend to view mental health in terms of dysfunctional patterns of thinking, behavior, and relationships. 

Differences in Disorders Treated and Treatment Modalities 

Psychiatrists  Therapists
  • Psychiatrists provide medical treatment for mental health disorders, such as medications. 
  • When there’s an issue, it has a physical cause that needs to be treated. The treatment they prescribe focuses on correcting this physical cause (i.e., medications).
  • They focus on disorders that will benefit from medications, such as bipolar disorder or depression (among many others).
  • Therapists don’t prescribe medication. 
  • Instead, therapists engage clients in psychotherapy (talk therapy), cognitive behavioral therapy, and other therapies as a means of treating mental health disorders. 
  • The treatments they provide focus on talk therapy.
  • They focus on disorders that will benefit from this kind of treatment, such as anxiety and behavioral issues (in addition to many other disorders).

Factors to Keep in Mind When Considering a Psychiatrist vs. Therapist

There is often considerable overlap between the education of mental health providers and the issues they treat. 

For those who are unsure of what mental health professional to see, Deibel suggests this:

“If you are looking to start on a new medication but not quite ready to open up and talk about emotions, psychiatry would be a good place to start. If you have no interest in taking medication but you have some changes you would like to make to improve your life, a therapist is likely your best option. Pick a place to start, and the rest of the information will become more clear as you begin to take steps towards your wellness.”

Whichever practitioner you choose, they can help you determine your mental health needs and make referrals as needed.  

If you start with a therapist and they think you could benefit from possible medication, they can make a referral for you to see a psychiatrist. And vice-versa, if you start with a psychiatrist and they think you would benefit from additional therapeutic talk, they can refer you to also see a therapist. 

At the end of the day, the goal of each professional is to help you manage your mental health ‌so that you can live your best life. 

If you are ready to start taking care of your mental health, book a session with one of our licensed therapists today.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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