Therapist vs Counselor

03 Mins Read

Deciding whether to see a mental health professional is a big step for a lot of people. But the search for the right provider can be just as daunting. Should you see a psychologist or a psychiatrist? And how are those different from a therapist or counselor? To complicate things, the fields of psychology and psychiatry often overlap.

The type of mental health professional you’ll benefit most from seeing depends on a lot of factors. You’ll have better luck if you know a bit about the backgrounds and functions of each specific category of mental health professional. That will help you find the right provider for your needs. It’ll also help you know what to expect when you start seeing them.

To shed light on this, we’ll go over what each kind of professional does, what education they have, and what they can do.


This is often an umbrella term for professionals who are educated, trained, and licensed to provide talk therapy or psychotherapy. Depending on the therapist, they might be a licensed counselor, social worker, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, or psychologist. During therapy, they can assess, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders. 

Keep in mind that most professionals who call themselves therapists can’t prescribe medications. Most people who need both therapy and medication see two different providers for each of those types of care.

Licensed Counselor

This category of mental health professionals includes:

  • Marriage and family counselors
  • Mental health counselors
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors
  • Rehabilitation counselors
  • School guidance counselors

Many states require licensed counselors to have master’s degrees and obtain a certification. Most marriage and family counselors complete a master’s degree in family therapy. 

Like therapists, most licensed counselors can provide therapy, but can’t prescribe medications.


In order to call themself a psychologist, a mental health professional needs to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Some programs also require earning a master’s degree in psychology as well. This involves a significant amount of clinical and research training. Each state has different licensing requirements, including passing exams, to become a psychologist.

Psychologists can provide therapy, but not medication.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

All psychiatric nurse practitioners have an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) degree with a focus on mental health. 

They often operate similarly to psychiatrists and are qualified to provide both therapy and medication.


Every psychiatrist has a medical degree. This lets them not only diagnose and treat medical conditions, but also prescribe medication. They tend to focus on diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health disorders.

Psychiatrists are qualified to provide talk therapy and prescribe medications, including:

  • Antidepressants
  • Sedatives
  • Anxiolytics
  • Antipsychotics
  • Hypnotics
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Stimulants

Are Psychiatrists Therapists?

Most psychiatrists only manage medications and other medical treatments. They usually don’t provide talk therapy

People who need medication management often work with both a therapist and a psychiatrist so they can get a combination of medication and talk therapy. However, some psychiatrists do offer talk therapy as well. If you need both, be sure to ask the specific psychiatrist you’re thinking of contacting; don’t assume.

Should I See a Therapist, Counselor, Psychologist, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, or Psychiatrist?

This depends on your specific problems, goals, and preferences. Talk therapy can be very helpful if you’re having trouble dealing with life issues. You may need to see a psychiatrist if you need medication or if you’re having more severe symptoms that need clinical attention.

Other Things to Consider When Choosing a Provider

Whether or not a provider is right for you comes down to more than just their degree and education (though that’s a great place to start and is certainly important). Most health care professionals know this and provide other relevant information in their online bio or website.

Specialties and Treatment Modalities

If you’re looking for a professional with expertise in a specific field or want to try a specific type of treatment, you want a provider who can meet your needs. If you already have a diagnosis (or suspect you might have a specific mental illness), look for it mentioned in your potential provider’s specialties.


A good therapeutic relationship is about personality match almost as much as it is about expertise. You want a provider who you’ll feel comfortable talking to.


Many people want their mental health care provider to have a similar cultural background as they do. This helps their provider understand where they’re coming from and can prevent communication issues or culture clashes. This can include factors like:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • A trauma-informed approach
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Understanding LGBTQ+ issues

Ability and Willingness to Make Referrals

It’s not uncommon for people to need more than one mental health professional to help them through their healing journey. Knowing a provider is willing and able to provide you with referrals to other professionals (either to offer additional support or to provide a better fit for your needs) can make it easier to find the best mental health care team for you.

Knowing how to find the right mental health care provider for you can feel overwhelming. But knowing what each provider’s credentials mean can help you narrow your search, helping you find the right provider more easily.

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