When having conversations with people who are seeking a mental health provider, I notice that there is often some confusion around the term therapist. For those of us who are in the mental health field, we often throw the word around freely assuming that most understand all that it encompasses as it relates to psychotherapy. Additionally, people use the terms psychologist and psychiatrist interchangeably or have trouble remembering which one prescribes medication. Below I have outlined a couple of broad points to provide a bit of transparency related to these topics.
- You can think of the word therapist as an umbrella term. Psychologists, Marriage and Family Therapists, Clinical Social Workers, etc. are all therapists. The biggest differences among them are the histories that inform the type of training and education practitioners receive, and the amount of time spent to complete the degree. Therapists who are psychologists earn a doctoral degree, while other disciplines primarily earn master’s degrees in order to practice psychotherapy. Psychologists can also conduct psychological testing, while other disciplines do not. The length of time in school does not equate to someone being a good therapist.
- The biggest difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that psychiatrists go to medical school to obtain their degrees and psychologists do not. Psychiatrists prescribe medication, psychologists cannot prescribe medication in most states at this time. Most of us are not trained to do so. Generally speaking, psychologists spend more time learning and practicing therapy skills, while this is less of the education and training psychiatrists receive. This difference shows up in our healthcare system by psychiatrists’ primarily addressing individuals’ needs for medication management, and psychologists using their time to help people better understand themselves and how to care for themselves.
- Within each of these disciplines, providers have different areas where they have dedicated most of their time to learning and understanding various parts of the human experience. For example, some are interested in helping women adjust to motherhood, others have spent their time learning how best to help couples communicate, and some choose to focus on specific cultural groups based on race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or age, to name a few.