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Therapist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

Medically Reviewed: Dr. Zohaib Haque
Author: Atlanta Integrative Psychiatry Team
Last Updated: April 3, 2024

When you’re seeking mental health services, it can be difficult to determine whether a therapist, a psychiatrist, or another type of provider is right for you. Learning more about the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist can help you make a more informed choice for yourself or a family member.

What Are the Different Types of Therapists?

Before we discuss the differences between therapists and psychiatrists, we’re going to review some fundamental facts about each type. We’ll begin with therapists.

Therapist is a general term that can describe professionals with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Some therapists are described by the license they have earned, while other titles refer to the population that they work with or the type of therapy they specialize in. 

Therapy sessions may be conducted on an individual, group, or family basis. In addition to psychotherapy (which is commonly known as “talk therapy”), therapists may offer a several other services, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, expressive arts therapy, and animal-assisted therapy.

The following are examples of the various types of therapists that a person may encounter in a mental health setting:

  • Licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
  • Nurse psychotherapist
  • Cognitive behavioral therapist
  • Equine therapist
  • Art therapist
  • Music therapist

In most cases, licensure and certification requirements are established and managed on the state level. This means that the type of license or certificate a therapist has can vary from one state to the next, even though the type of service they provide does not change.

Depending on state requirements, provider organization policies, and insurer stipulations, some services may be provided by counselors as well as therapists. Examples of licensed or certified counselors include:

  • Licensed mental health counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC)
  • Certified addiction counselor (CAC)
  • Certified alcohol and drug counselor (CADC)
  • Certified chemical dependency counselor (CCDC)

As with therapists, the titles and requirements for counselors can also differ among states. 

Virtually every type of therapist is required to have at least a master’s degree in a field that is related to the work they are doing. Possessing a master’s degree is also a requirement for many licensed or certified counselors, though some of these positions may be open to individuals who have a bachelor’s degree. 

Therapists and counselors also often must complete a set number of hours working with patients under the supervision of a qualified professional in order to earn their license or certification. They may also need to complete continuing education requirements in order to maintain their license or certificate.

What Are the Requirements to Be a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a type of doctor. To serve as a psychiatrist, a person must be either a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). The typical path to become a psychiatrist involves about 12 years of education and service:

  • First, a psychiatrist must earn a bachelor’s degree. Many students who intend to become psychiatrists major in psychology, biology, or a similar field, though there is no required undergrad major for this profession. This usually takes about four years.
  • After earning a bachelor’s degree, a future psychiatrist must then complete medical school. Again, the standard timeframe for accomplishing this is four years.
  • Once they have earned either an MD or a DO, a person must be accepted into a residency program, finish that program, and complete the requirements for board certification. For most professionals, this takes another four years.

Once they have finished their education and met the other standards to become certified, psychiatrists have a range of career options. 

For example, psychiatrists may work in an inpatient hospital, a mental health treatment center, or another facility, or they may establish a private practice. They may also specialize in treating certain patients (such as children, adolescents, or senior adults) or focus on a particular concern (such as trauma or addiction).

Differences Between Therapists and Psychiatrists

You probably noticed a few differences between therapists and psychiatrists while reading through the two previous sections. Here’s a quick summary of some key differences – some of which we may have already mentioned, and others that are making their first appearance in this post:

  • Education: Therapists and counselors usually have to earn a master’s degree. Psychiatrists must earn either an MD or a DO.
  • Medication: As doctors, psychiatrists are permitted to prescribe medications. Therapists and counselors – even those who earn a PhD – do not have this authority.
  • Diagnoses: All psychiatrists are able to diagnose a person with a specific mental or behavioral health disorder. The ability of a therapist or counselor to make a diagnosis could depend on their license or certification, their position, and the state they are working in. 
  • Therapy: Some psychiatrists may offer therapy, but many do not. Psychiatrists who don’t offer therapy may assess a patient, develop a treatment plan, then refer the patient to a therapist or counselor for longer-term care.
  • Insurance: Some insurers will only fund certain services if they are provided by certain types of professionals. Depending on what program a person is in and what type of care they are receiving, they may need to see a psychiatrist, a certain type of therapist, or another professional in order for their care to be paid for.

Find a Therapist or Psychiatrist in Atlanta

Even when you understand the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist, it can be a challenge to determine which type of professional you should contact. If you have been struggling with a mental health challenge, but you’re not sure what type and level of care you need (or who should provide that care), Atlanta Integrative Psychiatry is here to help.

Our team can assess the full scope of your needs, then choose the therapies and caregivers that are best for you. When you choose to heal at Atlanta Integrative Psychiatry, you can rest assured that you will receive customized outpatient care and close personal support from a team of highly skilled and deeply compassionate professionals.

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Appointment page or call us today.

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