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Therapist vs. Psychologist: Understanding the Differences and Choosing the Right One for You

Susan Halsey - Writer for Top10
The listings featured on this site are from companies from which this site receives compensation. This influences where, how and in what order such listings appear on this site.
A man having a session with his psychologist.
Not sure whether you need a therapist or a psychologist? You're not alone.

I've been a clinical psychologist for over 20 years, doing both in-person and online therapy. And I hear this question often: Should I see a therapist or a psychologist?

You may be wondering who can provide the best support, who is more qualified to address your specific challenges, or what the difference is between these two.

In this guide, I'll outline the training, skills, and services of therapists vs. psychologists. With this knowledge, you can choose the right mental health professional for your needs.

» Check out these science-based tips for effective online therapy.

Differences Between Therapists and Psychologists

The main differences between therapists and psychologists revolve around their educational background, treatment methods, and professional focus.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines the different types of mental health professionals like this:

Therapists, Counselors, and Clinicians

Therapists can have a range of educational qualifications, such as master's degrees in counseling, social work, or marriage and family therapy. They offer support for emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges using a variety of therapeutic techniques.

They focus more on direct therapeutic interventions. For example, a marriage and family therapist can work with a couple to improve their communication skills. In this scenario, they may use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help them recognize and change unhelpful thought patterns.

  • Accreditation: Master’s degree (MS or MA) in a mental health-related field such as psychology, counseling psychology, marriage or family therapy, among others.
  • Licensure and certification: Varies by specialty and state. Examples of licensure include Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), and Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LCADAC).

Psychologists

Psychologists usually hold a doctoral degree in psychology, enabling them to conduct research, perform psychological testing, and provide therapy. They have the necessary skills and knowledge to diagnose and treat mental disorders using various psychological theories.

While both can conduct psychotherapy, psychologists are distinct in their ability to administer detailed psychological assessments and often participate in academic research.

  • Accreditation: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in a field of psychology or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).
  • Licensure and credentials: Psychologists are certified by licensure boards in each state.
A woman having an online therapy session with her psychologist.

Mental Health Treatment Specializations by Profession

While there's overlap in the mental health conditions they address, each type of profession brings its unique focus and approach. This ranges from diagnosing and treating severe mental illnesses to providing support for emotional and relationship difficulties.

Psychologists

Psychologists often deal with severe illnesses like psychotic disorders and extreme mood disorders. Their training involves conducting comprehensive psychological evaluations and interpreting test scores. They're also engaged in research and teaching, which gives them a broad understanding of mental health conditions.

Master’s Level Therapists

The titles for these professionals vary by state and can include Mental Health Counselor, LPC, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC).

LMFTs, for example, specialize in family and marital relationships. They typically address a wide range of mental health concerns, with a focus on providing direct therapeutic interventions.

Counselors

Generally holding a master's degree, counselors often focus on shorter-term therapy. They concentrate on current problems or stressors, dealing more with clients' emotional and relationship matters through talk therapy and skills development.

Social Workers

Social work involves a lot of different things, like helping with social change, making things better for communities, and giving people more power over their lives. These professionals can have education ranging from a bachelor's degree to a doctorate and work at various levels:

  • Micro social work: Focuses on individual or family therapy.
  • Mezzo social work: Involves working with groups like neighborhoods, nursing homes, and hospitals.
  • Macro social work: Deals with policy-making, research, and community initiatives, tackling issues like homelessness and substance abuse.

What are the Most Common Types of Therapy?

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

This approach is rooted in the theories of Sigmund Freud and suggests that current problems stem from unresolved conflicts from your childhood that you're usually unaware of. The method has the ability to bring lasting benefits through self-knowledge.

It aims to uncover and resolve these deep-seated trauma. To practice psychodynamic psychotherapy, you can try a platform like TalkSpace.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Online CBT services could be a valuable tool if you're struggling with harmful thought patterns and behaviors. It starts with identifying and understanding your negative beliefs.

It includes techniques like behavioral activation, which encourages you to engage in positive and fulfilling activities. This can be particularly helpful if you tend to withdraw or feel unmotivated.

Another approach, exposure therapy, is aimed at reducing fear and anxiety. It involves gradually facing the situations or objects you're afraid of in a controlled and manageable way.

Platforms like BetterHelp also incorporate techniques like mindfulness and relaxation to help manage stress. Its counselors can teach you problem-solving skills to view challenges more constructively.

» Find out how exposure therapy can help you conquer your fears.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT recognizes that real life can be complex, and our health isn't fixed; it's always changing. This structured therapy program, often provided by services like Cerebral, presents practical skills for managing intense emotions and handling social relationships.

It was initially created to help people with chronic suicidal thoughts but is now widely used for conditions like borderline personality disorder and emotional struggles. It involves both group and individual sessions, typically spanning six months to a year.

It guides you in finding a balance between acceptance and change, allowing you to live with these challenges without feeling overwhelmed.

Brief, Solution-Focused Therapy (BSFT)

BSFT adopts a straightforward and action-oriented approach, different from traditional psychotherapy, which often delves into the pathology and deep-seated roots of challenges.

This method, offered on Thriveworks, emphasizes discovering immediate, practical solutions and focuses on your current needs and future aspirations. It leverages your past successes to guide interventions and behaviors for the present.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

EMDR, available on Online-Therapy.com, is an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma-based disorders. During the session, a trained therapist will help you process traumatic memories by guiding your eye movements from left to right.

This method helps your brain reprocess the recollections, reducing their emotional impact. It can be done individually, in groups, with family members, or with couples, depending on your needs.

» Here’s what you need to know about EMDR therapy for PTSD.

A woman getting an EDMR treatment.

Choosing Between Psychologists and Therapists

Deciding whether to work with a psychologist or a therapist isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. What truly matters is finding the right professional with the expertise to address your specific needs.

For instance, if you're dealing with PTSD, someone skilled in EMDR might be your best choice. On the other hand, if you struggle with depression or show symptoms of anxiety, you may respond well to CBT therapy.

Therapists and psychologists have their own approach, so you need to find one that suits your requirements. You and the mental health professional should also have a strong bond and mutual understanding.

Should You Seek Help From Both Professionals?

In certain situations, it may be beneficial to work with two different mental health professionals. For instance, you may consider using online therapy for OCD, along with a separate professional for marriage and couples counseling.

However, when multiple experts are involved, they need to communicate and coordinate treatment.

Does Insurance Cover Sessions With Psychologists and Therapists?

Insurance usually pays for both master's level therapists and psychologists. But you should talk to your insurance company to find out exactly what they cover and what you have to pay.

They often have a list of mental health workers you can pick from who work with your insurance. Since 2016, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act has required programs like Medicare and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to offer the same mental health services for older people and kids as they do for other health issues.

Find Your Ideal Mental Health Professional

Therapists and psychologists each have their own approach to mental health treatment. Some work with severe mental health conditions, and others help with emotions or problems in relationships.

Knowing how they're different is important for finding an expert who's right for you. It's all about choosing someone, whether a therapist or a psychologist, who can really help and guide you through life's challenges.

» Just not feeling it? Here are 10 signs you're seeing the wrong therapist.

Susan Halsey - Writer for Top10
With 20+ years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Susan Halsey specializes in anxiety, mood disorders, ADHD, relationships, and sports psychology. She's a certified soccer coach and champions mental wellness through exercise and support networks.

The author of this article has been paid by Natural Intelligence to write this article. Neither the author nor Natural Intelligence provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or your local emergency number immediately.