Are they the same?

The main difference between a therapist and a psychologist is that a psychologist can be a therapist, but not necessarily. Licensed psychologists can practice as clinical or counseling psychologists, and many of these professionals practice as counselors.

However, some doctoral-level psychologists are not trained to work with mental health issues. These include research psychologists, occupational psychologists, and industrial psychologists, amount others.

Who can be a psychotherapist?

Counselors and therapists are broad categories that apply to many professionals providing mental health services. They all have a master's degree if they practice independently.

  • those with a degree in a school of social work are called "clinical social workers."
  • "mental health counselors" have a graduate degree in mental health counseling.
  • "substance abuse counselors" specialize in helping those with addiction issues.
  • those trained to work with entire families have "marriage and family therapy" degrees.

Requirements vary from state to state. Most require a person with a master's degree to have around 1000-1600 hours of clinical experience.

In addition, most need to pass a state exam before achieving independent licensure.

Who can be a psychologist?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a psychologist as:

Psychologist. n. an individual who is professionally trained in one or more branches or subfields of psychology. Training is obtained at a university or a school of professional psychology, leading to a doctoral degree in philosophy (Ph.D.), psychology (Psy.D.), or education (Ed.D.).

These professionals work in laboratories, and schools, from grammar schools to colleges, hospitals, and clinics.

They may work in government, prisons, the military, business, or industry. Their actual job can include any of the following:

  • educational testing and assessment,
  • research,
  • forensic or criminal profiling
  • teaching, or
  • business and organizational consulting.

Which psychologists practice therapy?

School Psychologists

Regardless of the educational setting, these psychologists do jobs ranging from academic testing, to working with psychiatric problems such as:

  • ADHD,
  • disruptive behavior, or
  • any behavior like depression or anxiety that prevents a student from excelling.

They may also provide career counseling as well as work with families, administrators, and teachers.

Counseling Psychologist vs Clinical Psychologist

There is more similarity than differences between these two. Both share the same license. Both can diagnose mental disorders and treat both mild and severe psychiatric illnesses.

Both are capable of helping a broad range of behavioral, social, and emotional problems. Both help clients from a variety of ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds. Both can provide psychological testing.

Many argue that a clinical psychologist can treat more serious illnesses while counseling psychologists treat milder life adjustments. However, this is a false dichotomy as both can choose to specialize in everything from bipolar disorder to career challenges or couples therapy. Others choose forensic psychology, neuropsychology or cognitive psychology. This all depends upon the coursework they choose in their doctoral programs.

The central difference is often the letters after their names and the department where they received their training.

They may be mental health professionals with doctoral degrees, such as psychologists. If independently licensed, both groups can practice individual therapy and treat mental disorders in private practice.

Are psychologists medical doctors?

No. Physicians who treat issues such as substance abuse and prescribe medication are called psychiatrists. While psychiatrists can practice a variety of types of therapy, most do not. They specialize in psychopharmacology rather than long-term talk therapy.

Counselors and Therapists

The APA defines counselors as:

Counselor. n. an individual professionally trained in counseling, psychology, social work, or nursing who specializes in one or more counseling areas, such as

  • vocational,
  • rehabilitation,
  • educational,
  • substance abuse,
  • marriage, relationship, or
  • family counseling.

A counselor provides professional evaluations, information, and suggestions designed to enhance the client’s ability to solve problems, make decisions, and the effect desired changes in attitude and behavior.

The APA defines a therapist as:

Therapist. n. an individual who has been trained in and practices one or more types of therapy to treat mental or physical disorders or diseases. In the context of mental health, the term is often used synonymously with psychotherapist (see psychotherapy).


How to choose between psychologist vs therapist

Cost

As psychologists spend four years in school, earning a graduate degree in psychology is expensive. The Education Data Initiative reports that:

  • the average debt for students attending private, non-profit institutions that hold a Ph. D. is $270,712; $254,829 is from graduate school alone.
  • $88,820 is the average debt for a Master of Arts (MA); $65,767 is from graduate school.

More schooling (two years vs. four years) means higher debt. Managing debt payments can translate into higher fees for you, the client.

Specialization

Don't see an occupational therapist for marital problems. Don't look to a school counselor who has no experience with drug and alcohol addiction. Seek out a specialist who has the exact training and experience to help you with the problem you present.

Many specializations require training beyond graduate school. It is wise to look at continuing education courses that they've taken.

  • Do they have certifications from reputable organizations?
  • What professional organizations are they a member of?
  • What supervision have they attained to become expert in their area?

Learn where this professional has invested their time and money.

Fit

Credentials are a great place to start, but there are other considerations. Don't be reluctant to seek out a therapist who is similar to you in any of the following ways:

  • gender: Do you have a preference for a man, woman, or someone nonbinary?
  • race: Do you have a preference for a person similar to you in racial or ethnic makeup?
  • sexual orientation: Do you have a preference for a therapist who is openly gay or lesbian? Someone who specifically mentioned expertise with LGBTQi+ populations?
  • language fluency: You may speak fluent English, but perhaps your native language is French Russian, Mandarin, or Hindi. It might be desirable to find someone who is bilingual or even trilingual if you and your partner speak different languages.
  • faith or lack of: You may want someone well-versed in biblical scripture. You may want someone who is secular or non-religious. Some therapists specialize in working with Christians, Jewish clients, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
  • types of therapy: Perhaps you have heard that cognitive behavioral therapy is excellent for anxiety. Perhaps you want a therapist who has a trauma focus or can do hypnotherapy for weight loss.
    • Couples therapy has methods using a science-based approach. These include the Gottman Method, or Emotionally-focused Couples Therapy might be a priority for you.
    • You can find specialists in biofeedback, feminist, music, or creative arts therapists. Learn about your condition and what treatment approaches have been proven effective.
  • on your insurance panel:. This may be the first place to start Are you looking for individual therapy for a specific mental health condition? If so, it will be covered by your insurance. Once you have some names and know they are accepting new clients, launch an internet search to learn more about them.
  • "good vibes": Call the therapist on the phone and have a get-acquainted conversation. If that's not possible, attend a session. You should feel comfortable in their presence and willing to be open.


The final word on the difference between psychologist and therapist

Ultimately, choosing between a psychologist or a therapist depends upon many factors I've outlined above. Sometimes the best choice is someone who is available to see you and has an opening at a time that works for you. Build a solid working relationship with whoever you choose, and recognize that good therapy takes time, resources, and energy.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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