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A therapist is explaining the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist to a client.

What’s the Difference Between a Therapist And a Psychiatrist?

5 min.

The main difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist is their ability to prescribe and manage medications. However, there are other important differences to consider when assessing which fits your needs best.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

February 14, 2024


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Table of Contents

Therapists and psychiatrists both work within the mental health field, but there are distinct differences between the two kinds of providers. A therapist is a mental health professional specializing in talk therapy or psychotherapy for individuals, families, or groups. Meanwhile, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor trained to offer therapy and prescribe medication. Below, we will explore the differences and similarities between therapists and psychiatrists, providing guidance on when to seek support from each.

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Differences between a therapist and a psychiatrist

As mentioned, there are various differences between therapists and psychiatrists, including education, scope of practice, medication management, and treatment focus. Below, we explore these differences further.

Qualifications and education

Therapists typically hold master’s degrees in counseling, psychology, social work, or related fields. Their training focuses on developing expertise in psychotherapy techniques and counseling skills, including diagnosing mental health disorders, providing therapy sessions, and developing treatment plans for clients’ needs. A clinical psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, clinical mental health counselor, and licensed marriage and family therapist are all able to provide mental health services as therapists.

By contrast, psychiatrists are medical doctors or osteopathic medicine doctors (a kind of licensed physician) specializing in mental health. Their training includes extensive medical training, including four years of medical school and a residency in psychiatry. During their residency, they receive specialized training in diagnosing, treating, and managing mental health conditions. This training covers both medical and psychiatric care so psychiatrists can address mental healthcare from a holistic perspective.

Scope of practice

Therapists provide talk therapy or psychotherapy to individuals, couples, families, or groups. They focus on creating a supportive and nonjudgmental environment where clients can explore their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Therapists help clients develop insight into their challenges, identify coping strategies, and work toward personal growth and healing.

In addition to providing therapy, psychiatrists are trained to diagnose mental health disorders, prescribe medication, and monitor treatment progress. Psychiatrists may use a combination of therapy and medication management to address clients’ mental health concerns. 

Prescribing medication

Therapists do not prescribe medication. Their treatment approach primarily involves psychotherapy and counseling techniques. They may collaborate with psychiatrists or other healthcare providers when medication is necessary for the client’s treatment plan.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are licensed to prescribe medication for mental health conditions. They have expertise in psychopharmacology—the study of how medications affect mental health—and monitor the effectiveness and side effects, make adjustments as needed, and provide education and support to clients regarding their medication regimen.

Treatment focus

Therapists focus on providing therapy and support to help clients address and manage their mental health concerns. They work collaboratively with clients to explore underlying issues, develop coping skills, and improve overall well-being. Depending on their training and expertise, therapists may specialize in various therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or psychodynamic therapy.

Psychiatrists use various methods to treat mental health issues. They diagnose disorders, prescribe medication, and may provide therapy. While some offer therapy, most psychiatrists focus on medication management and evaluation. They assess clients’ symptoms, conduct evaluations, and create treatment plans that may involve medication, therapy, or other interventions.

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Similarities between a therapist and a psychiatrist

While therapists and psychiatrists have distinct roles in the field of mental health, they share a common overlap of helping individuals improve their mental health symptoms and overall well-being through therapy and interventions. The similarities between a therapist and a psychiatrist can be summed up as follows:

  • Mental health professionals
  • Ability to provide therapy
  • Focus on client-centered care
  • Collaboration with other healthcare providers
  • Engagement in continued education in the field of mental healthcare

When to connect with a therapist or psychiatrist

Deciding when to connect with a therapist or psychiatrist depends on various factors, including your needs, symptoms, and preferences. According to experts, treatment works best when you have a good relationship with your mental health professional, so after identifying a potential provider, you should determine if they are a good fit for you. Here are some other general tips to consider if you’re deciding whether to connect with a therapist or a psychiatrist.

When to connect with a therapist

A therapist may be the best option if you’re primarily seeking talk therapy or counseling to explore your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Therapists specialize in providing various types of treatment, such as CBT, DBT, or psychodynamic therapy (among other treatment modalities), to address a wide range of mental health concerns.

A therapist can also help you develop coping strategies, set goals, improve your emotional regulation skills, and provide support as you navigate challenges in your life. And the support you’ll get from a therapist is consistent.

Therapists typically offer regular therapy sessions, ranging from weekly to biweekly appointments, depending on your needs and availability. 

When to connect with a psychiatrist

If you require psychiatric medication to manage your mental health condition, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers, a psychiatrist is the appropriate choice. Since psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in prescribing medication and monitoring treatment progress, a psychiatrist may benefit your needs.

A psychiatrist can also conduct an initial psychiatric evaluation to assess your symptoms, medical history, and treatment needs. They can provide a thorough assessment and develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to your specific condition.

If you’re open to both therapy and medication as part of your treatment plan, a psychiatrist can offer a comprehensive approach that includes both medication management and therapy. They may provide therapy themselves or collaborate with therapists to ensure you receive holistic care that addresses your mental health needs.

Mental health treatment at Charlie Health

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health issue or diagnosed mental health condition, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for dealing with complex mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. In addition to a comprehensive online therapy program, we offer medication management for clients as needed. With treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start your online therapy healing journey today.

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