If you’re interested in seeking treatment for a mental health condition, it can be hard to know where to start. There’s a range of professionals out there who can help—but how to know which is right for you and your specific situation? You’ve probably heard a lot of terms thrown around: Psychiatrist, therapist, psychologist, counselor, and more. And while each of these professionals can offer care if you’re struggling, it’s helpful to understand exactly what the difference is so you can assess the best fit for you.
In this article, we’ll go over the key differences between a therapist and a psychiatrist and give you guidance on how to know where to start your mental healthcare journey.
In brief, therapists are professionals trained to help people through a range of mental health conditions. The process of working with a therapist generally involves some kind of talk therapy or psychoanalysis.
Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are licensed physicians (medical doctors) who specialize in treating mental health conditions through medication management and sometimes talk therapy. Psychiatrists are also trained to rule out underlying physical medical conditions and may order lab tests to do so.
The term “therapist” can apply to a range of professionals including social workers, mental health counselors, psychologists, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychoanalysts.
These licensed specialists receive years of specialized training in helping people work through various mental health conditions using evidence-based treatment approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance commitment therapy (ACT), EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and more. It's also important to note that many people who work with therapists don’t necessarily live with mental health conditions—therapists can be helpful for anyone who experiences relationship issues, anxious thoughts, or other interpersonal or emotional challenges.
In the United States, therapists are required to have a master's degree in a subject related to mental health or therapy. They are experts at listening and helping you understand and work through your thoughts and feelings and improve your mental well-being using different types of therapy.
Working with a therapist generally involves regular talk therapy sessions where you discuss your feelings, problem-solving strategies, and coping mechanisms to help with your condition.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors—M.D.s or D.O.s—who specialize in mental health conditions and substance use disorders. They are trained to handle all manner of complex mental health conditions ranging from mild to severe. Like all medical doctors, they are required to attend medical school, receive a medical degree, and finish residency training in their area of expertise. This amounts to at least 12 years of medical school and medical training—sometimes more depending on their specialty. Because they are licensed physicians, they can prescribe medications to their patients, and they are also trained to treat both the physical and mental aspects of their patients’ conditions.
When you work with a psychiatrist, you can expect to start with an evaluation that includes a comprehensive medical and symptom history. Your psychiatrist may also screen for underlying physical health concerns, like thyroid issues, for example, as symptoms of some mental health conditions overlap with symptoms of physical conditions. After a thorough evaluation, you’ll receive a diagnosis (if applicable). Your psychiatrist will work with you to determine a treatment plan, which may include medication, talk therapy, or both. They will monitor your response to medication and make any necessary changes, including safely adjusting your dosage, and adding and/or stopping medications.
A psychologist is a type of therapist with an advanced degree (either a PsyD or PhD) in psychology, the study of the human mind. Like all therapists, they are trained to offer mental health diagnoses and therapy or other treatment methods like EMDR to patients. Some psychologists (also called clinical psychologists) also specialize in neuropsychological testing, which is sometimes needed to make a diagnosis.
Unlike psychiatrists, they cannot prescribe medication to their patients.
Want to learn more? Check out: What Is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist
Psychiatrists are doctors that have specialized training in diagnosing complex mental health conditions. If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or similar, a psychiatrist may be a good place to start. Other signs that you should see a psychiatrist include:
Your psychiatrist will take a full medical history and offer you a diagnosis, if appropriate, for your mental health condition. From there, they will work with you to put together a treatment plan, which may include a combination of medication and talk therapy.
Because talk therapy is often a suggested addition to a comprehensive treatment plan, your psychiatrist may provide a referral to a therapist to receive this treatment option. From there, they will work with your therapist as part of your care team.
A therapist is trained to help you work through mental health conditions with talk therapy (also called psychotherapy) like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).
Sometimes, however, your therapist will determine that you could benefit from the additional support a psychiatrist can provide. If your symptoms are very severe, your therapist might recommend adding a psychiatrist to your care team if they feel you’d benefit from medication or medical supervision of your condition.
While seeing the right medical professional is important, the most important part of seeking mental health treatment is booking that first appointment—whether it’s with a psychiatrist, therapist, or primary care doctor. All mental health professionals are trained to provide appropriate referrals as part of your treatment plan.
If you’re interested in seeking the care of a psychiatrist, Talkiatry may be a good option for you. With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home, and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days.
Here’s what to expect in your first visit:
Evaluation: During your first visit with a Talkiatry psychiatrist, you’ll get to meet each other and answer questions about your current symptoms, personal history, medical history, and mental health goals.
Diagnosis: Based on the information you’ve shared, your psychiatrist will be able to provide a diagnosis of your condition, if you have one. Getting a diagnosis can feel scary, but it can also feel validating to finally put a name to what you've been experiencing. Your psychiatrist will help you navigate any emotions that come up and work with you on a path to move forward.
Treatment plan: You’ll collaborate with your psychiatrist on the best way to manage your symptoms. If medication is appropriate, you’ll discuss your options, including the benefits and potential side effects of each medication. Your psychiatrist will provide supportive therapy throughout your session, and may also recommend working with one of our therapists. Our therapists partner with our psychiatrists to provide collaborative care.
To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Austin Lin is a double board-certified adult and addiction psychiatrist who has been in practice for over 9 years. At the center of Dr. Lin’s clinical approach is a strong emphasis on establishing trust and using a collaborative approach to help patients develop an individualized and cohesive plan so that they are able to achieve their goals.
Dr. Lin's practice focuses on medication management. Typically, he offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, motivational interviewing, and/or cognitive behavioral therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. Occasionally, Dr. Lin may recommend that additional therapy is needed and ask that you bring a therapist into your care team in order to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Lin received his medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. He went on to complete his residency in psychiatry at Harvard South Shore, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where he served as Chief Resident and earned his 360° Professionalism award. He then had additional training in Addiction Psychiatry through his fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. After completing training, Dr. Lin has worked as an Addiction Psychiatrist and Director of Adult Services in the Trauma and Resilience Center (TRC) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He specialized in treating patients with a history of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorders.
Dr. Lin has held an academic appointment at UTHealth, and he has spent his professional career supervising and teaching medical students and psychiatry residents.