Your 411 On Mental Health Credentials

Psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist—what’s the difference?? Often times, many people confuse these terms, frequently assuming they’re synonymous. However, they all mean different things, but people in these professions strive for the same outcome: to improve people’s lives.

A therapist is a more general term and refers to anyone who has had some level of training in psychotherapy. This can include psychologists, master’s level counselors, or psychiatrists, to name a few. It is important to know that the term ‘therapist’ is not regulated by any type of licensing or credentialing board, so anyone can call themselves a therapist. Listed below are some helpful tips for distinguishing different types of licensed therapists.

Psychologist

(AKA: Licensed Psychologist, Clinical Psychologist)

A psychologist is someone who has an advanced degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology, specifically, a doctoral degree in Clinical, Counseling, or School Psychology. This advanced degree typically consists of 6-7 additional years of formal education (graduate school), after a bachelor’s degree is completed. Most psychologists receive their degree from a school accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), because such accreditation is a requisite for a state license. Many psychologist conduct research and/or provide psychotherapy. They can diagnose disorders or problems independently in their clients, and the additional years of education and training often result in more experience with advanced, top of the line interventions for clients.

Psychologists are also known for their specialized training in assessment and psychological testing. This is one of the hallmark features that differentiates them from master-level clinicians as well as psychiatrists. Psychologists spend several years learning and administering different psychological tests that assess intellectual and personality functioning, before they are eligible for licensure. Due to psychologist’s advanced skills in assessment, they tend to be very adept at differentiating one psychiatric condition from another, which is important because many clinical disorders can look alike or overlap. The right diagnosis is important for informing treatment planning both for psychotherapy and medication, in case the client decides to seek out medication as part of their treatment.

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is someone who also has an advanced degree (M.D. or D.O.), but they went to medical school for their degree to learn how to prescribe medications for psychiatric conditions. While psychiatrists are not expected to provide psychotherapy, due to their scope of practice, many are able to provide very brief, supportive psychotherapy to their clients, depending upon their training history. Typically, clients see their psychiatrist less frequently than their psychologist or master’s-level therapist, because the psychiatrist helps to manage their medications on a monthly or less frequent basis. Psychologists, master’s level therapist, and psychiatrists often work together to collaborate on client care. Because the provider doing therapy with the client will see them longer and more frequently than the medication prescriber, they can often be a helpful source of data regarding symptoms and overall functioning.

Licensed Master’s Level Therapist

(Types: Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW))

A licensed master’s level therapist is someone who also has an advanced degree in psychology, and typically, they spend about two additional years in graduate school to earn their Master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.), once their undergraduate degree is complete.  The advanced degrees can include such specialties as a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, Counseling Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, School Psychology, etc. They learn about assessment and intervention techniques for dealing with psychological issues, however, they do not typically receive specialized education and training in psychological testing. Many master’s level therapist do not make psychological disorder diagnoses, and several provide only supportive counseling, versus direct intervention. Due to the differences in educational requirements, master’s degree programs are not accredited by the American Psychological Association, rather, they have their own, varying accrediting institutions.