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Therapist vs. Psychologist: Understanding The Difference

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/05/2021

Navigating life's challenges can be a lot to deal with. Having to juggle routine matters like work or school, with not-so-routine issues like societal inequalities, and a once-in-a-century pandemic, can take a real toll on your physical well-being. But how's your mental health taking things? 

Mental illness is a common phenomenon, with nearly one in five U.S. adults living with a mental health condition. These illnesses range from mild, to moderate, to severe, and sometimes require the assistance of a mental health professional to be brought under control.

Two such mental health professionals are psychologists and therapists. 

If you typically use these titles interchangeably, you should know that while these professionals offer similar services, their roles may require different accreditations and skill-sets.

We'll be examining the roles therapists and psychologists play in mental health care, and noting the differences between both experts. But first, we'll highlight the circumstances that may require you to seek professional assistance for your mental health.

When Should You See a Mental Health Professional?

Any number of things can get you down, or scramble your mind and affect your usual energy to get things done. 

Triggers can be in your environment or circumstances you may be living through, and can take a toll on your daily life. 

However, if by your calculations, that persistent sullen mood, dip in energy or trouble sleeping has lasted for a little less than two weeks, you may simply be in need of some self-care. This is especially if you are able to muster the energy/fortitude to go to work, or care for yourself and others within this time.

Activities like exercising, getting adequate sleep and keeping to your sleeping schedule may be easy ways to practice self-care. Likewise, enjoying healthy eating, talking to a trusted friend/family member, or practicing meditation and mindfulness may offer some help.

But in the event that symptoms do not improve, or perhaps even worsen until you are experiencing any of the following, it may be time to seek professional help to assist with your challenges:

  • Having trouble sleeping

  • Experiencing a change in your diet which causes weight differences

  • Struggling to get out of bed in the morning

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Losing interest in things you once found enjoyable

  • Unable to perform your usual daily functions

  • Nursing thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Who Is a Psychologist?

Think of a psychologist as a healthcare practitioner whose specialty is the mind. Only, instead of focusing solely on the mental aspects, a psychologist will examine almost every aspect of your life: biological, psychological and social, to get a better sense of your wellbeing.

Psychologists are behavioral health providers who piece together the ways biological, behavioral and social factors may influence health and wellbeing. They attempt to understand, diagnose and treat psychological and behavioral problems by taking physical and mental health into account.

A lot of training goes into becoming a psychologist. Psychologists must have a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Postgraduate studies in clinical or health psychology are also mandatory. While this isn't exactly a requirement, a postdoctoral fellowship in a subspecialty of clinical/health psychology is recommended, a license may also be necessary.

Psychologists are typically found in hospitals and medical settings, but may be found in other environments like schools.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

There are many roles a psychologist can play, which may explain why there are several specialities in the field of psychology. We'll be examining these branches briefly, to get a better grasp of the contributions a psychologist can make in preserving mental health and wellness.

Some Subspecialties of Psychology

  • Clinical psychology: refers to the use of psychological knowledge to examine and treat matters of mental health, wellness and illness.

  • Health/medical psychology: is a field of psychology concerned with how biological, psychological and social factors may affect health and wellness.

  • Clinical neuropsychology: focuses on brain function, and how it may affect behavior and behavior problems.

  • Counseling psychology: is a specialty field of psychology where psychologists attempt to help individuals and groups adjust to change, or make changes in their lifestyle. It is intended to help in improving well-being, alleviating distress and coaching individuals in their decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

  • Rehabilitation psychology: this branch of psychology helps disabled individuals, and persons living with acute or chronic health conditions, adjust to their situation. Rehabilitation psychologists work in conjunction with other health care professionals, and are concerned with the treatment and science of disabling and chronic health conditions.

  • Pediatric psychology: is focused on diagnosing and treating any psychological problems in children and adolescents which may be affecting their physical health. It is also concerned with any psychological problems which may come from a physical dysfunction suffered by a child/adolescent.

Within any of the specialties, a psychologist may provide the following services:

  • Primary care by applying psychological knowledge and services to common psychological problems experienced by patients in primary and preventative care.

  • Secondary care may be provided for psychological assessments, treatment and rehabilitation. This care may be extended to children, adolescents, the elderly and people with special needs.

  • The psychologist may also provide tertiary care as part of a treatment team for a patient with an acute or chronic condition that is life-threatening who requires psychological help in coping with the disease.

In addressing psychological problems, a psychologist may employ cognitive behavior therapy, behavioral modification, family and couple therapy, biofeedback, rehabilitation, group psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, pain-therapy etc.

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Who Is a Therapist?

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 counsellors, 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.

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.

What Is the Role of a Therapist?

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:

  • Identify ways you can safely and properly deal with stress.

  • Guide you in piecing apart your interactions with others, and offer advice on improving your communication skills where necessary.

  • Help you identify ways in which your negative thinking can be harmful to your health. This can be achieved through guidance on the appropriate ways to question these thoughts, and overcome any self-beating attitudes.

  • Show you appropriate relaxation and mindfulness techniques.

  • Offer supportive counseling where you have heavy emotional issues to unpack.

  • Show you appropriate ways to manage anxiety.

In assessing and improving a patient's mental health and wellness, a therapist may use many forms of psychotherapy, some of which include:

  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies: this approach changes problematic behaviors and thoughts, by mining for their subconscious meanings.

  • Behavior therapy: this method looks to identify and change negative and harmful ways of thinking. It includes methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

  • Cognitive therapy: which looks to examine what people think, focusing less on what they do.

  • Humanistic therapy: this emphasizes an individual's capacity to be a good, contributing member of society, capable of making rational choices.

  • Integrative or holistic therapy: this approach combines elements of the other approaches and uses them together to create an appropriate treatment plan for each individual.

  • Supportive therapy: this therapy uses guidance and encouragement to assist patients with formulating their methods of handling circumstances. This method helps patients deal with mental health issues that are now affecting their physical health. It can improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety and strengthen coping mechanisms.

  • Interpersonal therapy: this is a short-form of treatment that allows patients to recognize and understand their relationships with other people. It may highlight issues that can be harmful like unresolved grief and difficulties relating with others.

What Is the Difference between a Psychologist and a Therapist?

Despite sharing certain requirements , and the core mission of improving mental health and wellness, there are notable differences shared between psychologists and therapists.

These differences are apparent in their education, job responsibilities and skill sets.

When it comes to education, there is a difference in requirements before either professional can practice. 

Psychologists are mandated to possess advanced degrees. They are required to have a minimum doctoral degree in psychology. This qualification usually follows an already existing bachelor's and master’s in the field. 

In comparison, therapists should have a minimum master's degree, following which students are to choose a field of specialty.

While the job of a therapist is more focused on connecting with clients, and helping them overcome personal issues, a psychologist's role requires that he or she be more analytical and observant in their dealings with patients. They are social scientists that carry out research and the diagnosis of disorders.

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Should You See a Psychologist or Therapist?

In deciding whether a psychologist or therapist is better suited for your mental health needs, a quick run-through of the core of their services may be able to guide your decision.

Psychologists study how people interact with their environment and people around them. It examines how such interactions come to affect mental health and behaviors.

Using research and other analytical measures, a psychologist is capable of diagnosing and treating learning disorders and behavioral disabilities. He or she is also able to provide support and treatment for the mental health of people living with acute or chronic medical conditions.

In comparison, a therapist may be more focused on coping with difficulties of daily life, helping you stop behaviors that may be harmful to your health and wellbeing and dealing with things such as the effects of painful life events such as death, divorce and more.

Both experts are suitably trained to attend to your mental health needs in different ways, and your healthcare provider can advise you on the best professional to go to for your particular situation. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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