If you are dealing with a mental health issue that’s interfering with your daily life, the symptoms can feel overwhelming. They can fully consume you, making it hard to focus at work, maintain your relationships, or even handle your day-to-day responsibilities. 

Taking the first step on the road to recovery can feel difficult or intimidating. You may not know where to start to get the help you need. 

Who should I call? What services should I seek? These questions can run through someone’s head and become paralyzing. 

Scheduling a therapy session and getting treatment becomes much easier if you understand the type of help you need. One facet of this is knowing the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist. 

Many people have heard about psychiatrists and therapists before, but when asked about the difference, they aren’t quite sure how to answer. This is understandable. If you’ve never pursued counseling services before, psychiatrist vs. therapist discussions probably haven’t come up in your daily conversations. 

If you feel ready to take that first step, now is a good time to know the distinctions of each.

This article will go into more detail about each role’s responsibilities so you can determine which choice is the best for you. 

What Is a Psychiatrist? 

Let’s start by getting familiar with what a psychiatrist does. 

First, their schooling. Becoming a licensed psychiatrist demands four years of medical school and at least one year of hands-on training as an intern. They must earn a degree as an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), and most select a specialty area to focus on — although, they aren’t limited to this path once they’re ready to begin their career.

This extensive education and training gives psychiatrists the deep knowledge and expertise to be able to diagnose and treat a variety of mental health disorders ranging from acute to severe. They understand the complex relationship between emotional and medical disorders and how genetics and family history play into their clients’ well-being. 

But the biggest thing that sets psychiatrists apart from other therapists is the fact that they’re licensed physicians who can leverage all the abilities of any medical doctor. They can order and perform medical labs and psychological tests to help paint a more comprehensive picture of a person’s mental and physical state. They are also licensed to prescribe medications that help people get their lives back on track. 

These medications could include the following: 

  • Antidepressants: These balance neurotransmitters in the brain to stabilize emotions and promote a positive mood. 
  • Anti-anxiety meds: These medications can help reduce the symptoms of panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, PTSD, and others.
  • Mood stabilizers: These help people who suffer from uncontrollable mood swings. They are often used on individuals with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia.
  • Stimulants: Stimulants promote focus and are prescribed to people with disorganized thought patterns. They are often used to treat ADHD and ADD. 

Once a psychiatrist diagnoses you, they will work with you to set you on a course for wellness. Unlike other mental health professionals, a psychiatrist’s primary focus usually isn’t to provide regular therapy sessions. Sessions with a psychiatrist are typically shorter than appointments you’ll have with other therapists, and their main goal is to analyze how well you’re doing on prescribed medications. Therefore, they will likely refer you to a therapist that you could see on a more routine basis. 

Although psychiatrists typically provide shorter appointments and less emotional insight, their services are typically more expensive because they’re medical specialists with more training. 

What Is a Therapist?

When it comes to therapists vs. psychiatrists, the main point to understand is that, unlike psychiatrists, therapists are more responsible for providing ongoing emotional and mental support. Because they’re not specialized in medicine, they’re unable to prescribe medications. Instead, they are focused on providing various types of therapy that help their clients overcome their struggles with mental health. 

There are several types of therapists you could see, and their credentials vary depending on their specialty areas. Here are a few you could choose from:

  • Psychologists: Psychologists must attend graduate school to learn how to treat various types of mental illness. They also complete a two- to three-year internship where they receive hands-on training in behavioral therapy, psychological theory, and treatment methods. They are taught to understand how the mind corresponds to behavior. They focus on day-to-day problems and may help clients with a range of mental disorders, from mild to severe. 
  • Licensed Professional Counselor or Licensed Mental Health Counselor: Licensed mental health counselors have a master’s degree in psychology or a counselor-related field. They must complete two years of training to get their license and are trained to help people develop better ways to cope with their emotions.
  • Licensed Social Worker: Social workers have master’s degrees in social work and must also go through thousands of supervised hours before being able to receive their license. They usually work in community-related fields, but some have private practices. 
  • Marriage Counselors and Family Therapists (MFTs): MFTs are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems. They have the ability to diagnose and treat mental disorders that may be the underlying cause of relationship problems. They must have a master’s or doctorate degree in marriage and family therapy, and at least two years of hands-on experience in the field. 

That isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is a good representation of the types of licensed counselors you could end up seeing. Therapists use different types of therapy to help treat their clients, including: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is a short-term therapy that focuses on changing thought patterns and behaviors. It is recommended for those dealing with anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, phobia, and OCD. 
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is often integrated alongside CBT. It is based on using problem-solving and acceptance to overcome mental issues. It is used to treat self-harm, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, destructive thought patterns, and more. 
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis encourages communication in the exploration of the underlying issues of mental illness. It is recommended for those dealing with anxiety and self-esteem issues. 
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy can be described as a simplified form of psychoanalysis. It involves the client becoming familiar with their feelings, thoughts, and beliefs so they can change recurring harmful behaviors. It is effective for those dealing with issues in the past that are negatively affecting their mental state. 

Many people also wonder how therapists typically serve their clients. Appointments can be conducted in a variety of settings:

  • Individual therapy: This is the most common type of therapy. It occurs on a one-on-one basis. 
  • Group therapy: Group therapy is performed in a group setting and is usually complementary to individual therapy. Many clients find additional benefit from communicating with others who are also dealing with similar issues. 
  • Family therapy: Family therapy is often conducted with multiple family members in the same room. In that way, it’s similar to group therapy but all of the people in the session are typically focused on resolving the same issues and strengthening their relationships with one another.
  • Online therapy: Online therapy is a great alternative to traditional in-person therapy sessions. They can be conducted by phone or via a virtual conferencing platform for added flexibility and accessibility.

Do Psychiatrists and Therapists Ever Work Together? 

It is very common for psychiatrists and therapists to work together. 

In some instances, you may want to see a psychiatrist first. A psychiatrist can order labs and tests that may help you pinpoint exactly what you’re struggling with and what treatment options would be the best for your unique situation. If necessary, they can prescribe medications alongside treatment that may help you overcome your problems faster than other therapy methods. Then, they will likely refer you to a therapist for more consistent care and treatment. 

If you’d rather not go that route, you could start with seeing a therapist. Depending on how your therapy goes, you or your counselor may decide that medication is necessary. If that occurs, they may refer you to a psychiatrist to determine what prescriptions you should be taking. 

In short, you don’t have to choose between seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist, and could likely end up seeing both. 

Which One Should You See?

Now that you understand the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist, you can better understand what option may be better for your needs. 

There really is no black-and-white answer here — it comes down to whether or not you feel your condition may warrant certain medications or if you’d like to be tested for a more serious disorder. Many mental health issues often require medical intervention, including: 

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Severe depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder

However, some situations can be treated by therapy alone. This may be a better route for conditions like:

  • Relationship issues
  • Milder anxiety or depression
  • Career uncertainty
  • Anger or stress management 
  • Negative thinking

In cases like these, you may choose to start out by talking to a therapist. Under their guidance, you can determine whether medication may be necessary. In any case, it’s recommended to consult with a mental health professional to determine the best course of action. 

Getting the Help You Need

Any mental health condition can get in the way of your ability to live life to the fullest, and putting off treatment could only make these symptoms and side effects worse. Understanding the difference between therapist and psychiatrist can help you take that first step and find the most appropriate form of support.

Thriveworks has a team of psychiatrists and therapists ready to get you on a path towards improved mental health. With 150+ locations across the United States, we are dedicated to making getting help as easy as possible for anyone who is ready to prioritize their mental health. We offer early morning, evening, and weekend appointments that are available for both in-person and online sessions.

When you’re ready, visit this page to make your first psychiatry appointment with Thriveworks, or this page to make your first therapy appointment. You can thrive — we can help.