Therapy FAQ

Psychologist vs. Psychotherapist: What’s the Difference?

Choosing between psychologists and psychotherapists involves understanding their roles. Psychologists, with doctoral degrees, diagnose and treat complex issues, while psychotherapists offer talk therapy. Discover which is right for you!

therapist william snyder By William Snyder, LPC

Updated on May 01, 2024

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon


Research indicates that 57.8 million Americans live with a mental illness. While the recent global pandemic helped highlight the value of mental health treatment, use of mental wellness services could still be improved. Only 47.2% of people living with a mental health issue seek professional help.

Of those who do seek professional help, individuals tend to turn to one of the following: a psychologist or psychotherapist. But what’s the difference between these two types of mental health professionals and how do you make the right choice?  

This article weighs in on the differences between psychologists and psychotherapists and highlights the type of services they offer. It’ll also cover how to pick between the two in order to make the right choice for your needs.

What Is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a mental health professional who studies human behavior and the mind. They’re trained to diagnose and treat complex mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders, and personality disorders.

They can provide a range of interventions, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and humanistic therapy. Psychologists can also conduct psychological testing to provide a more accurate diagnosis and inform treatment planning.

Due to the sensitive nature of this undertaking, psychologists are licensed and regulated by state licensing boards. The strict oversight ensures mental health practitioners meet specific education and training requirements and follow ethical guidelines.

Psychologists are among the most highly trained mental health professionals. They typically hold doctoral degrees in psychology, which usually takes a further six years after undergraduate study. The extensive training allows them to formally diagnose and treat a broad spectrum of mental health disorders.

When working with a psychologist, they will provide a personalized treatment plan tailored to your unique needs. They’ll consider your personal history, family, and cultural background and other factors that may influence your mental health.

Psychologists use evidence-based practices, proven effective through research and clinical trials, to create the best treatment plans. They’ll also work with other healthcare professionals, such as medical doctors, to deliver the best results.

Training and Licensure

Due to the complex and delicate nature of the human mind, psychology is a highly regulated field. Psychologists undergo extensive education and training to secure a state license. The licensing requirements vary by state but generally include:

Specializations

Psychologists can specialize in various areas depending on their education, interests, and training. Typical areas of specialization in psychology include:

What Is a Psychotherapist?

Psychotherapists are mental health counselors who provide therapy to individuals, couples, and families. These counselors are trained to provide talk therapy and a safe and supportive space for patients to explore their thoughts and feelings.

A psychotherapist will work with you to address emotional and psychological issues such as trauma, stress and burnout, low self-esteem, grief and loss or relationship problems. Counselors provide a safe and confidential space to share your concerns without judgment or repercussion. Your psychotherapist functions as a neutral, objective, and non-judgmental sounding board.

Dr. Jennifer Dragonette of the Newport Institute explains how psychotherapy works, “Once these challenges are brought to the surface through open conversation, a therapist can help their patient understand how these issues may be negatively affecting their everyday lives and work on developing successful strategies to decrease the effect of the symptoms.”

Collaborative treatment entails establishing a relationship grounded in trust and mutual respect. You will work jointly with your therapists to identify and change limiting thought processes and behavioral patterns that hold you back.

A psychotherapist seeks to help you identify the root cause of your distress and improve your emotional and psychological well-being. They’ll help solve your initial problem and equip you with new skills to help you cope with similar challenges in the future.

A psychotherapist may work as a behavioral therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker, depending on their education and area of specialization. 

Training and Licensure

The training and licensure requirements for becoming a psychotherapist aren’t as strict as a psychologist. The criteria to become a licensed psychotherapist varies between states, but includes:

Specializations

Psychotherapists can come from various educational backgrounds, including psychology, social work, counseling, or psychiatry. They may hold a master’s or doctoral degree in their respective fields and often have additional training and certification in specific types of psychotherapy.

Common psychotherapy specializations include:

How to Choose Between a Psychologist and a Psychotherapist

Although they both provide mental health care, there are crucial differences between psychologists and psychotherapists.

A psychologist is a trained mental health professional who studies human behavior, including how people think, feel, and behave. They use their knowledge to help people with complex mental health problems such as, depression, personality disorders, OCD, ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism. A psychologist can formally diagnose mental health disorders and recommend treatment.

Conversely, psychotherapists specialize in providing therapy and counseling to individuals, couples, and families. They’re specially trained to help patients manage and overcome emotional and psychological difficulties.

They work collaboratively with you to explore your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and how they impact your life. A psychotherapist will help you develop the coping skills you need to manage your symptoms.

Key Differences

The psychologist vs. psychotherapist choice comes down to your specific needs and preferences. Understanding the critical differences between a psychologist and a psychotherapist can help you make the right choice when battling a mental health condition.

Educational background

Psychologists typically have a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology and have completed extensive training in assessment, diagnosis, and psychotherapy. Psychotherapists may have a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field, such as counseling or social work and have received specialized training in talk therapy.

Focus 

Psychotherapists focus on helping patients manage emotional difficulties, relationships, and other stressful life situations. Psychologists focus on how people think, act, interact with other people, and react to internal and external conditions.

Areas of Expertise 

Psychologists specialize in helping patients understand, explain, and change their behaviors. Psychotherapists specialize in helping patients understand, manage, and overcome psychological and emotional problems.  

Licensing 

Psychologists require a state license, while psychotherapists can practice without a license in many states. The licensing requirements vary from state to state.

Services Provided 

Psychologists treat various mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. Psychotherapists help patients overcome emotional and behavioral issues, including anxiety disorders, trauma and PTSD, grief and loss, addiction, and relationship problems.

Your Mental Health Needs

It’s important to choose a mental health professional who specializes in your area of need. Psychologists are highly trained to deal with complex mental health issues such as severe anxiety, personality disorders, bipolar disorders, OCD, ADHD, and autism. 

Psychotherapists specialize in talk therapy and counseling. They’re the best choice for dealing with milder mental health issues such as stress, low self-esteem, substance abuse, trauma, PTSD, and relationship issues.

Training 

Psychologists are trained to provide psychological assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and psychotherapy. Psychotherapists are trained to provide therapy and counseling to help patients address their mental health concerns and they can’t make a formal diagnosis.

Personal Compatibility 

For therapy to work, you should feel comfortable and safe around your therapist. Consider a therapist’s communication style, values and approach to treatment to ensure they’re a good fit.

Cost 

Psychologists are typically more expensive than psychotherapists due to their extensive training and education. However, the actual cost of therapy depends on factors such as the type of treatment, location, and experience. Many therapists accept insurance or offer sliding scale fees to make their services more affordable to those in need.  

Accessibility 

Consider availability and location when choosing a mental health professional. Look for a counselor who’s conveniently located and has availability that works with your schedule. You may consider teletherapy or online therapy for greater accessibility.  

Takeaways

A psychologist is ideal if you’re dealing with complex and severe mental health issues or need a diagnosis. Conversely, a psychotherapist is ideal if you’re dealing with a milder mental health issue that may benefit from an informal and conversational approach to therapy. A psychologist may also provide psychotherapy, but a psychotherapist may not provide a psychologist’s services.

Connecting with the right therapist is the first step to improving your mental health. Grow Therapy simplifies the search process to help you connect with a therapist who suits your unique needs. Find a therapist who meets your needs, including their gender, specialty, location, and availability.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist william snyder William Snyder, LPC

William Snyder is a licensed professional counselor who works with adults experiencing symptoms such as anxiety, depressed mood, loss and grief, identity and self-concept difficulties, relationship problems, life-transition difficulties, and traumatic memories.

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.

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon