Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/9/2022
So, you are suffering from a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. You see the signs in your day-to-day life. But how do you know who to talk to -- a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a therapist?
Finding the right provider to treat your mental health issues, whether with psychotherapy or medication, can seem daunting. That's why we've laid out who to talk to and what each provider does to treat your mental health condition, so you can make the most informed decision.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in mental health who has the ability to provide both counseling services and prescription treatment.
A psychologist is a mental health professional with a PhD or PsyD who can provide several types of therapy and can diagnose specific mental health conditions.
A therapist is a mental health professional with at least a master's degree and who is specialized in a certain field. They can provide therapeutic tactics and help you set healthy mental health goals.
The truth is, you have quite a few options when seeking help for mental health disorders. From therapists or mental health counselors to psychologists and psychiatrists, not all are considered medical doctors, but you can get the mental health services you deserve.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists hold medical degrees and are experts in diagnosing, assessing, treating and preventing mental health disorders — and have the ability to prescribe medications when necessary, for treatment.
Psychiatrists can also assess patients' physical and mental health and how they might relate.
Starting with a psychiatrist allows you to begin therapy immediately, voicing your concerns and problems and introducing yourself with a focus on what you want to address.
This initial assessment may include a psychological test and will set you up for what your therapy sessions will look like in the future, whether you meet once a week or more or less often, depending on your needs.
And while a healthcare professional may only spend a few minutes on your mental health during a checkup, a psychiatrist will give you the entire session of between 30 and 50 minutes.
And therapy may also be a good way to work on your relationships. Other people can join the session with you, giving you and your partner the space to talk with a therapist about any relationship issues.
Read more about how to find a psychiatrist, how to choose a psychiatrist, and what to expect when seeing a psychiatrist in these blogs.
A psychologist is a mental health professional who helps support people with a myriad of mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association.
This includes diagnosing and treating specific mental health issues or mental health conditions, helping people cope with stressful situations, and managing addictive behavior or chronic illness.
A psychologist may also educate clients on psychological theories to help them learn about how they think, feel and behave.
Psychologists are often counselors and employ talk therapy.
While similar in practice to a psychiatrist, a psychologist is different in that they typically are not medical doctors. Technically, a psychologist will obtain a PhD (doctor of philosophy) or a PsyD (doctor of psychology).
This means that they can provide you with the counseling aspect of a mental health treatment plan that you need, but because they did not attend medical school, they cannot provide a prescription for your depression.
Like a psychiatrist, a psychologist will employ different types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help pinpoint your personal causes of depression.
Psychologists also can address different mental health disorders and mood disorders (such as anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder) and help you implement lifestyle changes and self-care tactics to help you get on the path toward a healthier life.
While therapists are not considered doctors, they are also a great option if you are looking to talk to someone about your mental health. Therapists will also help you set your own goals based on what you’ve asked for help with.
The term 'therapist' (or psychotherapist) doesn't refer to any one specialty profession in particular — it is an umbrella term used to describe a healthcare professional who is trained to help individuals identify and change troubling thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Therapists can be counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers etc, and these professionals usually have specializations in their respective fields.
A therapist may be recommended after dealing with a long-term situation that has acted as a persistent stressor e.g a difficult job, a loss in the family, relationship trouble etc.
You might begin seeing a therapist following a referral by a healthcare professional. This can happen in instances where your healthcare provider diagnoses you, or suspects that you are dealing with a mental health condition like depression or PTSD.
You can read our article to learn if therapists can diagnose you.
In carrying out their roles, psychotherapists use talk therapy, which consists of a variety of techniques to help identify and treat disturbances in mental health.
Given that both professions are in the mental health field, there are some similarities such as outcome goals and research abilities. Here’s more on what’s similar between the two types of mental health professionals:
Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists work to help people with their mental health. Both types of healthcare professionals can support clients through different mental health illnesses, and provide mental health treatment.
Regardless of the title, these professionals are set up to care for people. Many people think of the psychologist and psychiatrist profession as a ‘doctor for the mind.’
The goals for all are usually to have the client improve their mental health and state.
To have a career in psychology or psychiatry (and mental healthcare in general) one must go through intensive and specific education and training.
There are differences, however, especially in terms of the education needed for each profession. We’ll get into that more, below.
Specific psychologists and psychiatrists may choose to do mental health research. These professionals then research specific mental health topics and conditions to help inform treatment and future research.
There are some key differences between psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists — which mostly relate to education and mental illness treatments.
The specific educational backgrounds and paths are different for psychologists and psychiatrists, such as the following:
Psychologists attend graduate school during which they typically pursue a doctorate level degree in psychology, such as a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy), PsyD (doctor of psychology), or EdD (doctor of education). Practicing psychologists have a doctoral degree in one of these fields.
These programs typically take four to six years to complete, with one to two years of supervised work with patients and licensing exams. Some psychologists will specialize in specific fields and have additional training for areas such as couples therapy or child therapy.
Psychiatrists attend medical school during which they pursue a medical degree — either an MD (doctor of medicine), or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine). After medical school, they pursue psychiatric-specific residencies, fellowships and further training.
Psychiatrists spend more time in school and have full medical training. Often this means four years of medical school, followed by three to four years in a specific, psychiatry residency training program.
Many psychiatrists may also sub-specialize in a specific area, like adolescent psychiatry or adult psychiatry.
While a therapist will not obtain a doctoral degree, they should have a minimum master's degree, following which students are to choose a field of specialty. These fields include clinical psychology, family therapy, substance abuse, and more. They will also obtain a state license in order to practice.
Read more about the types of therapy a therapist may practice in this blog.
Another contrast between psychiatrists and psychologists is the type of treatment provided, and the philosophy behind treatment methods. Although there is often overlap in treatment, psychiatrists are the only discipline able to prescribe medication.
Psychologists will typically use talk therapy as a form of treatment, but the method of talk therapy may depend on you and your psychologist. Some forms of talk therapy include:
This approach takes into account behaviors, feelings and thoughts to discover their meanings and motivations. (Psychiatrists may employ psychoanalysis, too.)
This is an approach that focuses on learning more about behavior (much how it sounds).
Your counselor may observe your conditioning and try to help you desensitize toward specific behavior.
Talk therapy commonly includes both a behavioral approach and a cognitive approach (see below).
This approach focuses on what you think rather than what you do. In this way, cognitive therapy is meant to highlight dysfunctional thinking that might be leading to dysfunctional emotions or behavior.
This approach focuses on helping you discover your ability to make choices and develop your maximum potential.
Most practicing psychologists cannot prescribe medication. However, New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho laws allow licensed psychologists to prescribe medication. So in those states, medication may be a part of the treatment plan.
Like a psychologist, psychiatrists will often use talk therapy such as the various talk therapy methods above.
However, because a psychiatrist is a physician, they can provide treatment based on mental and physical health — which sometimes includes other interventions or medication.
Some psychiatrists will use talk therapy as a part of their treatment plan. They also may use psychological testing in talk therapy to determine and diagnose different mental health conditions.
Want to try talk therapy online? Check out what hers offers here.
In extreme cases, when patients don’t respond to medication or talk therapy, sometimes a psychiatrist will use brain stimulation therapy.
For example, electroconvulsive therapy is one procedure in which electric currents pass through the brain while you’re under anesthesia. However, this is typically only used to treat severe depression or resistant bipolar disorder.
Unlike most psychologists, as mentioned above, psychiatrists have the ability to prescribe medication as part of a treatment plan.
The different types of medications that psychiatrists typically prescribe include:
Antidepressants are medications designed to change brain chemicals that are involved in regulating moods, according to the book, StatPearls. These chemicals are primarily serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Antidepressants may be prescribed for depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or borderline personality disorder.
Learn more about antidepressants in this guide.
Anxiolytics are also medications that are designed to affect brain chemicals that help regulate moods, according to an article published in the journal, StatPearls. The most common type of medication in this category would be benzodiazepines, according to an article published in The Ochsner Journal.
Benzodiazepines can be prescribed to treat patients with panic disorders and generalized anxiety, but are not generally the first line of treatment due to their addictive potential.
Hypnotics work sort of how they sound: They’re medications used to treat sleep disorders and to help patients maintain sleep.
Antipsychotic medications are the primary medication treatment for those with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders, according to an article published in the Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association. For some, antipsychotics can provide relief from hallucinations and delusions, too.
Mood stabilizers are also much how they sound: They’re a class of medications used to stabilize mood in patients with bipolar disorder.
Different types of stabilizers target different chemicals in the brain to treat bipolar disorder.
Stimulants are medications used to enhance specific actions within the brain. According to an article published in the journal, Translational Pediatrics, these stimulants are typically prescribed to help treat patients diagnosed with ADHD.
There are many roles a therapist can play in assessing and improving a patient's mental health and wellness.
Should you visit a therapist, depending on the purpose for employing their services — you can expect them to practice one of the following forms of psychotherapy:
Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies
Behavior therapy (including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
Integrative or holistic therapy
Deciding which mental health care provider is right for you is ultimately in your hands. Depending on your needs, any one of these options may be a good idea. Either way, you are making the right first steps toward getting better by getting help, no matter what option you choose.
If you’re looking to talk to someone immediately, you have the option to explore our online psychiatry options for virtual support in your healing journey.