Many of us will struggle with mental health disorders at some point. Mental illness is a term that incorporates a broad spectrum of diagnoses and, therefore, can benefit from a wide range of treatment options.
Recognizing that you or a family member requires the help of a qualified mental health professional is the first and often the most significant step. But where’s the right place to go?
Both psychiatrists and therapists can seem very similar jobs on paper, but there are some critical differences between the two. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know to know who to reach out to for the best mental health care required.
Therapist vs. Psychiatrist – How We’ll Compare Them
First, this isn’t a case of ‘which is better. Regarding mental health services, both the therapist and the psychiatrist are vital parts of the resources that treat mental disorders.
Both are mental health professionals who work hand in hand with one another to deliver the best possible care, often in the same medical setting. This can include a hospital or clinic.
But they are fundamentally different, and it’s essential to know which is which to avoid getting confused with the treatments they offer.
Psychiatrists are Medical Doctors
The most immediate difference between the two is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed medical school. In their many years of medical school, they have learned everything a primary care doctor or physician has learned.
The psychiatrist has chosen to pursue further specialized training in mental disorders at graduate school to ensure they’re qualified to treat mental health conditions. Their doctoral degree enables them to diagnose and treat mental disorders as qualified professionals.
A psychiatrist can also prescribe medications to treat mental illnesses as they have received specialized training in the effect drugs have on the mind and the body and will prescribe medicines as per their accurate diagnosis.
Their knowledge of general medicine, along with specializing in the use of psychiatric drugs, means that they are best equipped to balance the need for treating mental illness without exacerbating or even causing physical problems.
Therapists are Not Medical Doctors
The word ‘therapist’ can encompass a range of qualified mental health professionals, but they are not medical doctors.
Practicing psychologists, licensed counselors, marriage counselors, and even social workers can be called therapists. Still, they do not possess the same professional qualifications as a psychiatrist and are therefore restricted in the services they can offer.
A therapist cannot write prescriptions as they have not received the necessary training in medicine. Some therapists, however, can accurately diagnose and treat mental disorders. If medication is needed, a doctor or psychiatrist must sign off before treatment can continue with the therapist.
Some psychiatrists have chosen to pursue careers as therapists but are still qualified as doctors. The same cannot be said of therapists: for them to reach the level of a psychiatrist, they would have to receive full medical training, like any other doctor.
In Treating Mental Health Disorders
Psychiatrists and psychologists often have a symbiotic relationship in treating mental health symptoms. Although one may have a medical degree and the other may not, this does not mean one is more important in mental health treatment than the other.
Many people with mental health issues find that they can receive treatment for their mental problems via a psychologist or counselor who provides talk therapy without needing medications.
Those who struggle with a specific issue can decide to approach a counselor or therapist best suited to their needs.
For example, group therapies can be highly effective when receiving support for substance abuse. Family therapists and social workers may be ideal for those struggling in relationships with family members.
Study and Training
Of course, all mental health care providers must undergo a study and special training to treat mental conditions safely, but the extent of their training will differ depending on their role.
While medical doctors can prescribe medications, not all can prescribe specialized medication that, if incorrectly prescribed, could be dangerous. Some treatments for psychosis and bipolar disorder involve medication management that must be performed under the care of a psychiatrist.
The medication prescribed must consider underlying medical conditions or biological factors that a psychiatrist should carefully observe and be qualified to monitor medications to this extent.
Therapists come in all shapes and sizes, depending on their specialty. But all will have gone through rigorous training to enable them to treat mental illness professionally and effectively.
Psychologists qualify by first attaining a psychology degree as an undergraduate, and most choose to do a master’s degree to hone further their skills and experience, including work experience via an internship.
Many then go on to do a Ph.D. or PsyD, a doctoral degree in psychology, but this is not the same as a medical degree and will not enable them to prescribe medication.
The value of talking therapy cannot be overstated when it comes to mental health treatment. After all, the old cliche of the psychiatrists’ couch has long come to symbolize talk therapy for all mental health conditions.
In this respect, mental health counselors must be good listeners and care about getting the right help for their clients. It means they might not have received a psychology degree, although many choose that path and even choose to do a master’s degree.
However, to qualify as a counselor means possibly choosing one of several different training paths.
Counselors can obtain a mental health degree or other such qualifications involving psychological theory and understanding of how to manage case management services to provide therapy and mental health support in various ways.
They often partake in internships or similar programs where they receive clinical supervision from a qualified therapist. Some counselors in training are even advised to go for therapy themselves to understand the process better and to provide treatment thus more effectively.
Counselors can provide talk therapy in their practices or by visiting clients in their homes and online therapy and group therapy sessions where appropriate.
While a psychiatrist is a medical doctor and therapists are qualified mental health professionals, a psychotherapist is someone who almost sits in between both kinds of profession.
It’s important to note that while some psychiatrists can also be practicing psychotherapists, most are not. Instead, a psychiatrist usually deals with more acute, immediate, and complex mental health needs.
A psychotherapist, therefore, is rarely qualified to prescribe medications because they are not qualified doctors. However, they are qualified to treat patients with mental health problems using highly effective treatments that other therapists and counselors may not be trained in.
Let’s look at some diverse ways mental health can be treated as part of a treatment plan.
The Different Treatment Methods
Mental illnesses are many and varied, just like the myriad diseases that affect physical health. Because no two people are the same, what works for one may not work for another, even though they may have received similar diagnoses.
When to See a Psychiatrist
Referral to a psychiatrist is often necessary when a person suffers from acute symptoms that negatively impact their lives to the extent that nothing else alleviates the symptoms.
For example, those struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, excessive worry, increased episodes of substance abuse, or frequent bouts of anger that will not subside should seek out a psychiatrist.
Psychiatrists are also always on hand at mental health units and hospitals to tend to patients who are struggling with their symptoms and who may need medication prescribing day or night.
When to See a Therapist
A psychologist or therapist may be a better fit when you have an issue or problem affecting your psychological health that you’re aware of and would like to talk to someone about.
That’s not to say a psychiatrist referral isn’t necessary or may not become so in the future, but the beauty of seeing a therapist is that it’s a much faster way of getting support. Unfortunately, most psychiatrists aren’t available as quickly as psychologists or therapists, mainly because fewer of them.
A therapist can provide case management services appropriate to each individual’s care and perform psychological testing, talk therapy, family therapy, etc.
When to See a Psychotherapist
A counselor or therapist may advise a little extra help via a psychotherapist. These professionals have often received extra training in proactive therapies beyond simple talk therapy.
For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), and other psychodynamic therapies are more complex behavioral therapy techniques that can only be performed by a therapist who has received the correct training.
Social workers, family therapists, and counselors across the profession will attest to such therapies’ effectiveness and may suggest a psychotherapy referral.
Which Mental Health Professional Do I Need?
The good news is that even if the first one you see isn’t necessarily the right fit for your needs, both psychiatrists and therapists work side by side, and one will refer you to the other once they have an idea of the best treatment.
These professionals are concerned with your well-being and aim to get you the most effective help to help you manage stress, deal with mental illness, and feel better as soon as possible.
Which is Better, a Therapist or a Psychiatrist?
Ultimately, it comes down to your own needs. A psychiatrist will be necessary if the psychological assistance is also treated with medication or if symptoms are particularly acute.
After a time, a psychiatrist may feel that you can be discharged from their services but may advise keeping in touch with a therapist or other mental health professional to continue receiving support.
At times, a psychologist or therapist may indeed spot signs of more acute needs and will suggest seeing a psychiatrist. Either way, by getting in touch with such services, someone will point you in the right direction.
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