Psychiatrist vs Therapist — What’s the Difference?

And which one should help you care for your mental health?
Medically Reviewed by
Dr Hamilton
A brunette woman holds up her phone and talks to a blond therapist over telehealth
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With so many kinds of mental health professionals and care types, it can be difficult to figure out what sets them apart — psychiatrist vs therapist, social worker vs counselor, talk therapy vs medication… It can get overwhelming fast. 

But especially where therapy and psychiatry are concerned, it’s worth knowing the difference. While many types of mental health care and even providers overlap with one another, sharing some characteristics or techniques, there are clear distinctions that can have a notable effect on your treatment plan. So let’s define our terms.

What is a therapist?

‘Therapist’ is a broad term — it basically just means someone who is trained to treat and rehabilitate patients — but for the purposes of our focus here at Youper, when we say the word ‘therapist’ we’re referring to psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or mental health counseling. 

The issues these therapists work with vary widely, ranging from common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety to more serious mental disorders like schizophrenia, but the common thread is that mental health therapists are empowered to assess, diagnose, and treat emotional and behavioral disorders.

A licensed therapist will work with you to define and implement a treatment plan involving evidence-based techniques that are tailored to your unique circumstances. The only mental health treatment they can’t provide is medication, although they can partner with your doctor to provide a combined treatment that includes medication.

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A team of medical professionals, including psychiatrists, stands outside a medical facility
Source: Shutterstock

What about licensing?

Licensed therapists are required to have a certain level of education, pass qualifying exams, and complete a set number of supervised hours in order to legally treat patients on their own. This includes psychologists, who have their doctorate degree, marriage and family therapists (MFT), who have a master’s degree, and clinical social workers (LCSW), who also have a master’s. 

Other licenses you might come across are Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), both of which enable therapists to diagnose and treat mental health issues.

It’s worth pointing out that the term ‘therapist’ isn’t a protected title, which means that licensure isn’t a strict requirement for calling oneself a therapist — so if you’re looking for a licensed therapist, make sure you check each candidate’s credentials before working with them. 

Still, just because a provider isn’t a licensed therapist doesn’t mean they can’t help you. Peer counselors and behavioral coaches who are trained in in-the-moment interventions — such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tools — can be extremely effective at helping clients challenge their negative thought and behavior patterns.  

What is a psychiatrist?

The main thing that sets psychiatrists apart from therapists is their medical degree — a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, which means they’ve completed medical school and the associated exams and residency, and are empowered to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions. 

This includes prescribing medications, which therapists cannot do. Patients whose mental health treatment calls for medication will usually see a psychiatrist for therapy and medication management, or they’ll see a therapist who will then work with a doctor (either a psychiatrist or the patient’s primary care provider) to manage the medication side.

Although some people may refer to their psychiatrist as their therapist, and a few psychiatrists may indeed treat patients with talk therapy or other behavioral intervention, most psychiatrists are more like psychopharmacologists. Psychiatry is focused on medication-based treatment, often in tandem with therapy — but usually, a patient’s psychiatrist and their therapist are two separate people. 

Should you see a therapist or a psychiatrist?

The deciding factor when it comes to whether you should seek treatment from a psychiatrist or a therapist is medication. If you’re already on a medication to help stabilize your mood, such as an SSRI, a psychiatrist is likely your best bet. 

Similarly, if you’ve never been in therapy before or taken medication for your anxiety or depression, but you think you might want to try it, a psychiatrist can be a helpful person to talk to about which treatment plan and/or medication is best for you.

That said, just because medication is involved doesn’t mean you have to see a psychiatrist. Many people find that a combined treatment of medication management — either from their primary care physician or a psychiatrist they consult regularly — and weekly talk therapy is very effective for helping them understand and manage their mental health.

The other big factor is access: can you afford a psychiatrist? Does your insurance cover some types of providers but not others? Is a psychologist’s hourly rate within your budget? These questions and more will likely come up as you explore your options, and they’re all extremely valid. Access to mental healthcare is too often limited, both logistically and financially.

Therapists created Youper to make mental healthcare accessible to everyone. Youper is a mental health chatbot that guides you through interactive CBT Therapy exercises to help you calm anxiety, improve your relationships, be more productive, and improve your mood. Youper is available on your own time and schedule wherever and whenever needed.

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