Psychiatrist vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?

An adult man sitting and talking to a female psychiatrist

When exploring mental health services, people sometimes think the terms “therapist” and “psychiatrist” are synonyms of one another when referring to experts on the human mind and how it affects our behavior and well-being.

While these professionals collaborate with one another to help their patients, they diagnose and treat mental health in different ways based on their areas of focus. 

At Rural Psychiatry Associates, we have both psychiatrists and therapists on our team of providers, among other licensed mental health professionals. We want to educate the public about how these occupations differ, so people seeking mental health services can better understand which professional would best suit their needs.

Let’s dive into three differences between psychiatrists and therapists.

1. Education & Training

While both professions require advanced education in their field, psychiatrists are medical doctors who complete medical school and residency to diagnose, treat, and prevent conditions of the human psyche. Their qualifications as doctors allow them to prescribe medication and other treatments to address physiological symptoms of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Psychiatrists are also trained to differentiate between underlying medical conditions and mental illnesses.

A close-up of two people's hands during a therapy session

Therapists, on the other hand, are licensed counselors who have at least a master’s degree in their field and can diagnose and treat a wide range of mental health conditions. While some therapists achieve doctoral degrees, they are not medical doctors, and therefore do not prescribe medication. If therapists determine that their patients would benefit from medication, they will refer them to a psychiatrist to ensure their patients receive the best care for their needs.

2. Treatment

Another way psychiatrists and therapists differ is how they approach mental health treatment. Psychiatrists treat their patients using a biopsychosocial model. This means that in addition to considering a patient’s psychosocial circumstances, they also focus on the biological and physiological effects of mental health, specifically chemical imbalances of the brain that cause depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and many other mental illnesses.

Once they’ve determined a patient’s diagnosis, psychiatrists use a variety of treatments – such as talk therapy, medication, or other non-pharmacologic modalities like lightbox therapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). If they prescribe talk therapy (sometimes referred to as psychotherapy) for a patient, they will refer them to a therapist, as this is their area of expertise.

A young woman with mid-toned skin and long black hair sits on a couch during a therapy appointment

While psychiatrists primarily focus on the physiological side of mental health, therapists address additional components of emotions and behavior. Their focus is to help patients feel better by having increased awareness of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, both individually and within various relationships and other social interactions.

After obtaining an extensive and thorough mental health history and understanding their clients’ goals for therapy, therapists can begin working with patients in areas such as developing and strengthening cognitive and emotional regulation skills, forming healthy habits, increasing healthy communication skills, processing traumatic life events, and coping with day-to-day challenges that are affecting their mental health. A variety of therapeutic modalities are available to help patients meet their goals, and therapists will work with patients to determine the best therapeutic approach for them. They may offer these sessions individually, as a couple, or as a group, depending on the situation.

A group of middle-aged adults sitting in a circle and laughing with one another during a group counseling session

3. Session Frequency

The last major difference between psychiatrists and therapists is how often they meet with their patients to track progress and adjust treatment, if necessary. Frequency with psychiatrists depends on their patient’s medication tolerability and stability in clinical presentation. Initially psychiatrists are following up more frequently, typically every one to two weeks, to ensure that the patient is tolerating their medications without significant side effects. Once a psychiatrist knows the patient is tolerating their medication and their clinical signs and symptoms are improving, frequency of treatment often moves farther out, typically once a month. Meanwhile, therapists may meet their patients more frequently. Some people see their therapists every day, if that is the best course of action for them. Therapists will work with their patients to determine the recommended frequency of sessions based on their personal situation.

Finding the Right Professional for You

If you are struggling with your mental health or are simply looking for someone to talk to, seeking help from a licensed professional is an important step toward improving your mental, emotional, and social well-being. However, it can be difficult to know which professional to see first.

A good place to start is to find a mental health professional whom you feel comfortable talking to about the issues you are facing. Fortunately, psychiatrists and therapists both have the required training and knowledge to help you make an informed decision. If necessary, they will each refer you to the other upon an initial assessment, if they determine that is the best course of action for your needs. The first step is to research clinics that offer a variety of mental health services and set up an initial consultation.

At Rural Psychiatry Associates, our team of mental health providers includes qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental health professionals. We offer a wide range of in-office and telehealth services to people of all ages. Whenever you are ready, we are here to answer your questions and schedule your appointment so you can get back to living life to the fullest. Contact us today to get started.