Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/11/2022
With a widening array of mental issues and disorders popping up on the spectrum, it only makes sense that there’s a wide array of mental health professionals that specialize in treating them. One of the most common questions people seeking mental health care ask is what the difference is between a therapist vs. psychiatrist.
It’s a fair question. Both specialize in specific mental issues. Both provide rock-solid treatment depending on what you’re dealing with and both are highly qualified in their respective fields.
But there are some key differences you should be aware of. What disorders do they treat? How do they work? Who can prescribe anxiety medication?
A psychiatrist is a medically trained physician who has completed both four years of medical school atop four years of psychiatric residency training.
A psychiatrist experiences a rigorous educational background in mental health to have a wide array of tools available to help their patients.
Further, a psychiatrist’s training gives them the experiences required to discern one problem or challenge from the next.
One of the key differences between psychiatry and psychology — in fact, one of the central tenets of psychiatry — is they can prescribe medications to their patients to supplement the mental health care they’re receiving.
It’s important to note: psychiatrists are not the only ones who can prescribe medication. In certain cases, general practitioners and nurse practitioners can, too.
A psychiatrist can, because of their physician’s background, perform a range of medical tests and procedures on their patient to determine how best to help the patient.
Further, their medical training gives them the requisite tools in assessing a patient’s mental health disorders or other mental health conditions.
These tools help them better understand their patient’s emotional state, along with the patient’s genetic and family history.
And, after using this complex array of tools, a psychiatrist typically arrives at a diagnosis and then determines a treatment plan for their patient.
The treatment plan for the patient varies, of course, via the patient’s needs.
However, it’s common for psychiatrists to prescribe medication while also incorporating talk therapy into their interactions with their patients.
The idea of taking any kind of medication for your mental health can be initially daunting.
You might ask yourself —
Is it safe?
Does efficacy vary from medication to medication?
The good news is: there’s plenty of research and data to support the simple claim that medications for your mental health challenges — whether they’re for simple bouts of anxiety, severe depression or something else — are safe.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the medications that you’d potentially receive if you were to begin working one-on-one with a psychiatrist:
A mood stabilizer, such as lithium, lamotrigine, Divalproex® or carbamazepine can be used to treat mania, bipolar disorder or other depressive episodes of varying degrees.
A hypnotic, such as sleep aids, typically assist those who — along with other mental health challenges — have trouble sleeping. Believe it or not, sleep is a fundamental factor in your overall mental health, so when you can get a good night’s sleep, odds are you’re setting yourself up for a better mental health day, too. Read our article on hypnotherapy for depression if you'd like to learn more.
An antipsychotic — or dopamine receptor antagonist (DRA) — can treat bipolar, schizophrenia, hallucinations and delusions.
Antidepressants can be used to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and more. The antidepressants available for your psychiatrist to prescribe are designated into specific classes of medications including: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs,) serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs) and others.
A therapist, otherwise known as a psychologist, studies the cognitive, emotional and social processes that feed into a patient’s interpretation, reaction to and emotional experience of the world-at-large.
Psychologists can work individually with patients, as part of a healthcare team, with physicians, psychiatrists and social workers to best help patients and serve their needs.
A therapist does not prescribe medications.
On the other hand, what a therapist does is use a variety of different cognitive and therapeutic practices to assist patients in taking back control of their lives.
Because there’s such serious variety in terms of the kinds of therapy a psychologist can practice, we believe it’s worth mentioning some of the most common ones for you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) places an emphasis on the way patients think. The practice of CBT believes that, if a patient properly understands the cycle in which feelings influence thoughts, as well as the interpretation of outside events, then the patient can better control their thoughts and, in turn, their emotions. Negative thought patterns bring about negative emotions, they believe. Reverse-course, then you have a fresh start.
Behavioral Therapy (BT) focuses on a patient’s behavioral patterns. Behavioralists believe that if you can focus on concrete behaviors a patient exhibits — and alter, even change them — then the emotional experience of the patient’s day-to-day will change, too.
Psychodynamic Therapy (PT) zeroes in on a patient’s unconscious to determine how it influences their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. PT believes that you can only change someone’s patterns and behaviors by uncovering what feeds the unconscious.
Humanistic Therapy (HT) focuses on a patient’s ability (or lack thereof) to make rational choices for their own self-improvement and welfare. By focusing on concrete solutions to their problems, HT believes that emotional improvement will follow in-tow with the concrete changes one brings about to their every day.
Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) emphasizes a patient focus on how they can bring about concrete, definitive improvements to their every day through reframing, tactile action and consistent journaling. This raw, pragmatic approach to self-improvement has yielded rather encouraging results to boot.
Exposure Therapy (ET) is commonly used in a controlled, safe environment with people suffering from anxiety, OCD and other phobias. The idea behind ET is to safely expose a patient to the phobia that’s afflicted or plagued them. By desensitizing them to this phobia, it’s believed the exposure can eventually dampen or altogether eliminate the phobia.
Mindfulness puts an emphasis on meditation, focusing the mind on the present and its coinciding thoughts. The emphasis behind mindfulness, therapists believe, results in a calm mind, a calmer body and more controlled, self-aware and calmer thoughts for the patient.
Group Therapy (GT) is just as it sounds: one enters into a controlled, safe group atmosphere to discuss what’s been weighing them down. The problems can relate to anything from substance abuse to a form of post-traumatic stress (PTS). The results of group therapy’s efficacy on the patient’s behalf have been quite encouraging.
Look at that list.
There are so many arrows in the proverbial quill to assist you in your mental health care journey.
The beautiful thing is there’s a dynamic variety to these therapeutic practices. None of them offer exactly the same method of assisting and easing the patient’s troubles.
Instead, these practices offer a different way of skinning the cat. By understanding that no person is the same, that everyone has to approach their problems in a different way, psychotherapy has never been in a better place than it is in right now.
While many of these methods require in-person treatment, many mental healthcare professionals are warming up to the idea of things like online therapy to help cater to their patients’ needs.
Learning how to differentiate between a therapist and psychiatrist makes all the difference in figuring out a proper plan of attack when it comes to treating your mental health concerns.
They’re very similar in their respective approaches to treating mental health issues, but their approaches may differ. While a psychiatrist can — and will — employ the types of therapy a therapist can offer, a therapist cannot prescribe the types of medications a psychiatrist can.
Therapists, on the other hand, specialize in non-medication treatments that usually include providing patients with things like coping strategies, exercises, treatment regimens and more.
Either way, our main point is that regardless of what kind of help you need, there is help out there for everyone.