Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Counsellor: The Difference
What is the difference between a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist, and counsellor?
Seeking professional support for mental health struggles is a big deal - it takes an immense amount of courage to make this decision. What happens after we decide to seek help? Most often, the plan is to do a quick google search to find a professional in the area who looks friendly and welcoming enough to meet. Unfortunately, this is often followed by the discovery that there are different terminologies and types of mental health professionals, each providing different supports. The quick google search becomes endless scrolling and frustration. Understandably, this is unsettling for many people.
What do all these terms mean? How do we know which type of mental health support is best to see?
The key difference between a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist and counsellor is the type of training the professional has had to enter the mental health profession of their choosing. The journey to successfully enter each of these professions are quite different from one another.
Below is a brief description of the difference between each mental health profession.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has chosen to specialise in mental health treatment. Individuals often see a psychiatrist for diagnosis and medication support. Psychiatrists prescribe medications, alter medication dosages, change the medication being prescribed, and can admit individuals to hospital for 24/7 support. Psychiatrists can also provide brain stimulation therapies such as rTMS and electroconvulsive therapy. You can see a psychiatrist for all mental health concerns or challenges you are experiencing. Most often, psychiatrists treat serious or severe mental illnesses. They may work as part of a mental health team and can refer you to the appropriate health professional based on your current and specific needs. Some psychiatrists may provide therapy and counselling, however, this is not their main area of work.
Psychologists can be involved in research or practising clinical work (therapeutically working with individuals). Their specialities include their knowledge of human behaviour, cognitive processes, and the connection between the two. Practising psychologists support a wide range of mental health difficulties. Psychologists often work within the medical framework, but as they are not medically trained, they cannot prescribe medication. Psychologists assess, diagnose and treat mental, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural disorders. They conduct tests, assessments and use scales to provide an understanding of how an individual thinks, feels, and behaves. Treatment is often focused on addressing the individual’s symptoms, with the aim to change the behavioural, social, emotional, and/or cognitive difficulties being experienced. During treatment, psychologists use a wide range of clinical theories, the most common being Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Engaging in personal therapy is not a requirement to obtain any tertiary level degree in psychology.
Psychotherapists take a holistic approach in their treatment. Psychotherapists support a wide range of mental, emotional, and relational difficulties. They are known as being the professional who treats complex and ongoing issues. The relationship between the client and therapist is seen as essential to the treatment process. They provide short or long-term therapies and draw on a wide range of clinical theories and approaches. They focus more on processing the driving causes of symptoms rather than the symptom themself - as they believe this is key to long-lasting healing and symptom relief. This is referred to as making the ‘unconscious conscious’. It involves supporting an individual to identify, process and learn ways to move forward from the original adversity experienced. To become a psychotherapist, you must undergo your own personal therapy weekly for a number of years. This is to address any underlying personal issues the psychotherapist in training has not yet dealt with, to ensure optimal well-being before and during therapeutically supporting others, and to provide an experience of being a client in therapy (client perspective) as another form of learning.
The terms psychotherapist and counsellor are often used interchangeably. This is for one of two reasons: the difference is not known, or the professional provides both styles of treatment. Counselling treatment generally refers to short-term treatment with issues solved at a conscious level. The counsellor may use scales to assess improvements, provide coaching and life advising, help individuals identify goals and ways of achieving their goals, and solutions to challenges that are causing the individual emotional distress. Counselling sessions tend to be more concerned with practical or immediate issues and outcomes in comparison to psychotherapy treatments. Often the individual who chooses counselling as their preferred form of treatment is aware of why they are experiencing the distress in their lives.
All mental health professionals will have areas of specialties, so it is important to ask your practitioner what these are. A good practitioner will advise you if your challenges lie outside their professional scope, and may even support you to find another practitioner that is best suited to your needs.
Answering the following questions (even if your answer is ‘I don’t know’) can be helpful when making this decision.
What are you seeking support for?
What are you hoping to achieve by seeing a mental health professional?
What kind of funding, financial stability do you have access to see a mental health professional? (not all mental health professionals have access to rebates or funding)
If you are still unsure which professional may be best for you, I recommend getting in contact with your GP to discuss your specific needs and circumstances. If you were able to answer the questions above, you can take these to your GP who will help guide you in the right direction.
If you think psychotherapy or counselling are the treatments that suit your needs best, I’d love to support your journey. You can contact me via the link below.
Poppy is a registered psychotherapist in private practice providing individual psychotherapy to adults. Poppy believes that healing comes from within. By turning our focus inwards, we can experience change in all areas of life.