- Understanding the difference between a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist and counsellor
Understanding the difference between a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist and counsellor
Finding what type of mental health support suits your situation can be very difficult. There are many professions out there that overlap. This ranges from counsellors and psychotherapists to psychiatrists and psychologists. There is also a jungle of terminology to get your head around before you start searching for the right professional.
Ensuring you can find someone who has suitable training and a background to match is essential. Finding a person who you feel comfortable talking to is equally important.
On this page we will look at the various professions within the mental health industry. We will explain what they do, how they can help and the key differences between them. This should help you understand what profession will be best able to assist you.
Psychotherapy is a term that covers all talking therapies and the many associated approaches/methods. Due to the broad use of the terms, the titles psychotherapist and counsellor are often used interchangeably.
The aim of psychotherapy is to help clients overcome a wide scope of concerns. These concerns range from emotional difficulties to psychiatric disorders. Psychotherapists can train solely in psychotherapy. They may also cross over from other professional backgrounds within the mental health sector.
Psychotherapists can choose from a wealth of approaches to help you understand and explore how you feel. Some therapists also teach skills to help you manage difficult emotions more effectively.
For more severe conditions, such as psychosis, a psychotherapist will normally work with other professionals (such as psychiatrists). This allows for an effective, robust treatment plan.
A psychotherapist can work with individuals, groups, families or couples. Many tend to specialise in who they work with and what issues they address. For example, psychotherapists can decide whether they work with children or adults.
Psychotherapists will typically meet with clients on a regular basis (once a week is considered the norm). There are many different types of therapy that psychotherapists can train in. They include:
- cognitive and behavioural therapies (focusing on the way people think and behave)
- psychoanalytic therapies (looking at how past experiences affect the present)
- humanistic therapies (with a focus on self-development and growth)
- arts therapies (using the creative arts in a therapeutic way)
- other therapies (includes all other therapies such as group therapies and mindfulness).
There are many schools of thought when it comes to the therapies used within psychotherapy. So before you begin, research and see which type resonates with you.
There are currently no legal restrictions surrounding the title of psychotherapist. However there are some titles within the field that are regulated/protected. This includes ‘registered psychotherapist’. Professional bodies such as the UKCP protect such titles. They ensure high standards of training with an emphasis on safety of practice. You can find out more about registered/accredited titles on our professional bodies page.
Key points about psychotherapists
- They help people with emotional/psychological concerns using talking therapies.
- They may work within a team of other medical professionals.
- They can choose to specialise in certain therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
- Depending on their training, they can work with individuals, groups, families or couples.
A counsellor will utilise psychotherapy to help clients going through mental health difficulties. In some cases, professionals may choose to call themselves a psychotherapist. Others may refer to themselves as a counsellor.
Some experts believe that while areas of the two professions overlap, psychotherapists work on longer-term concerns and have the training to reflect this. Others argue that there is little to no distinction between the professions. Many counsellors now undergo similar extensive training as psychotherapists. Checking a professional's experience, training and qualifications is always advised. This will give you a better understanding of how they can help support your needs.
When we talk about counselling, we are referring to one-to-one, group or couple meetings. In these settings people are free to talk about their feelings to a trained professional. This takes place in a confidential environment.
A counselling session may simply involve the client and counsellor talking through concerns with no specified structure or agenda. Alternatively, a counsellor may use a specific form of psychotherapy to help the client.
There are many different areas counselling can help with, including:
- depression, stress and anxiety
- eating disorders
- family issues
- low self-confidence and low self-esteem
- relationship issues
- work related issues.
Another point to consider is the various formats of counselling:
- Face-to-face individual counselling offers you the chance to talk openly with your counsellor.
- Group counselling involves discussing concerns within a group of people experiencing similar difficulties. The counsellor facilitates the discussion.
- Couples counselling involves the exploration of relationship issues with your partner and counsellor.
- Family counselling involves discussing concerns surrounding family relationships with your counsellor.
The aim of both psychotherapists and counsellors is to create an environment in which you feel safe discussing your feelings. For this reason you need to develop a trusting relationship with your therapist. If you do not feel comfortable with your chosen counsellor, discuss this in your next session. Alternatively, you could look to speak to a different professional.
Similar to the title psychotherapist, the title counsellor is not legally protected. So you should check the professional's credentials to ensure they are qualified to practice.
Key points about counsellors
- The term counsellor is not legally restricted in the UK. You are advised to check their credentials.
- Counselling can be applied individually, in groups, families and couples.
- Counselling sessions can take place face-to-face, via Skype, by email or over the phone.
- Counsellors encourage you to find your own solutions, rather than telling you what to do.
Psychology is effectively the study of the way people think, behave and interact. Looking at the way the mind works, psychology covers everyday functioning such as learning and remembering. It also covers more complex mental health conditions.
Psychologists are normally described as being 'applied' or 'research-oriented'. Those who are 'applied' will use their knowledge in a practical capacity to help patients. Those who are 'research-oriented' will aim to further society’s knowledge of the human mind.
To obtain the title of psychologist, an individual would need to gain a degree in psychology. To become a counselling psychologist they will need a degree in psychology and a Doctorate in counselling psychology. Counselling psychologists are a fairly new group of applied psychologists. They blend therapeutic practice with psychological research and theory.
Counselling psychologists tend to deal with the same types of issues as counsellors. These include bereavement, trauma and relationship issues. They also take on more serious, long-term issues such as domestic violence and sexual abuse. They will apply their understanding of the medical context and diagnosis of certain mental health problems in these cases.
Psychologists can choose to specialise in a certain area of psychology. Many specialise in a particular type of assessment or therapy (for example CBT or neuropsychology).
There are many titles within the psychology industry that are restricted by law in the UK. These include:
- clinical psychologist
- counselling psychologist
- educational psychologist
- forensic psychologist
- health psychologist
- occupational psychologist
- practitioner psychologist
- registered psychologist
- sport and exercise psychologist.
This means that anyone with these titles has to be listed with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) by law. Being listed with the HCPC ensures that they have had the relevant training and adhere to a strict code of conduct.
Key points about psychologists:
- They are concerned with all matters of the mind. This includes everyday thought processes and behaviours.
- The title 'psychologist' on its own means someone has gained a degree in psychology. It is not legally protected.
- There are certain titles within psychology that are legally protected such as 'clinical psychologist'.
- Psychologists are often either entirely research-focused or 'applied' (meaning they treat clients).
A psychiatrist is someone who has had medical training and has decided to specialise in psychiatry. The term psychiatry refers to the study of mental disorders. This includes their diagnosis, management and prevention. Psychiatrists often work on a broad range of cases alongside an area of expertise and research.
Similar to general practice or paediatrics - psychiatry is a medical specialty. This means in order to be a psychiatrist you must train for five years as a doctor. A further two years of 'foundation' jobs is needed before specialising in psychiatry. To become a fully trained psychiatrist it typically takes another four years of dedicated study. There is also an option to specialise further still.
Psychiatry builds its knowledge by observing and researching various conditions. A diagnostic system aims to identify clusters of behaviours that occur together - commonly described as syndromes. These are then researched to understand any social, psychological or physical causes, with a view of establishing an effective way of helping.
Psychiatrists can work with people of any age. Yet they tend to work with those with more severe conditions and/or those that require medical intervention.
Within the specialty of psychiatry, there are a number of subspecialties. Each of these requires a Certificate of Completion of Specialist Training (CCST). Such sub-specialties include:
Adult mental illness specialties
- general psychiatry
- forensic psychiatry
- old age psychiatry
- psychiatry of learning disabilities
- child and adolescent psychiatry.
Normally, your GP (or other healthcare professional) will refer you to see a psychiatrist. However you can make an appointment with a private practice too. A psychiatrist may work on their own or alongside other health professionals (such as occupational therapists or social workers) depending on the circumstances.
As psychiatrists have medical training, they are able to do things other mental health professionals can't. For example, a psychiatrist can carry out medical tests (i.e. blood tests and CAT scans). They can also prescribe medication should it be required.
Key points about psychiatrists:
- They have had full medical training and have chosen to specialise in psychiatry.
- They can choose to specialise further in areas such as forensic psychiatry.
- They can perform medical examinations and tests.
- They can prescribe medication.
We only list professional counsellors, psychotherapists and counselling psychologists on Counselling Directory. To find a professional in your area that utilises the approach you are looking for, please use our advanced search tool.
We hope this page answers any queries you may have regarding the world of mental health professionals. Should you want to find out more, you may find the following pages useful:
- What training, qualifications and experience should a counsellor/psychotherapist have? - This page discusses the various qualifications and training a counsellor/psychotherapist may have.
- Professional bodies - On this page we explore the role of professional bodies and look at some of the requirements for membership.
- Why choose Counselling Directory? - Here we explain the verification process this site uses to list counsellors.