What is the Difference Between a Therapist and a Psychologist?

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psychologist or therapist

When seeking help for your mental health, it is important to be informed. There are many options out there and professionals who have their own niches, specializing in specific areas to help people live their best life. Most trained professionals will have a baseline background and training to provide mental health services.

In reality, the public does not really know what those letters mean at the end of someone’s name. It can be helpful to do your homework and really know what you want before you reach out to someone. It can be overwhelming to find the right person that fits with you and your personality. Knowing some of the differences amongst mental health professionals can narrow the search a bit, leaving you not needing to cast quite such a large net.

Psychologists are professionals who have studied human behaviors and are considered social scientists. If they are providing counseling, they will have an advanced degree (either masters or doctorate) and be licensed. They will have a background in areas like counseling theory, general psychology, research, behavior modification, and diagnosing mental health disorders. They are specializations under the umbrella of psychology, but most are going to have a similar background and training. With a psychologist, you can kind of know what to expect going into a meeting or a session with them.

Therapists are professionals who also provide counseling. However, their license, training, and degree can come from many different backgrounds. Professionals who provide therapy might have a degree in counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, or social work, to name a few. Therapy is a more general term, so it can be important to understand what kind of therapy you are seeking.

Each degree must meet certain requirements and each license has to meet national (and/or state depending on the country you live it) requirements as well. While each degree will have a level of counseling and diagnosing, the background and focus will be where you see the biggest difference. For example, those with a degree and a license in marriage and family therapy are going to have a depth of knowledge in family systems whereas someone with a social work degree and license will have a depth of knowledge in families in community.

Even under each discipline, like psychologists, there can be specializations. For example, you might be looking for a sex therapist, a family therapist, a marriage therapist, or an addictions therapist and find that two people who specialize in the same area might have different licenses or different degrees. If that is the case, what their degree and type of license tell you is more about the lens in which they view problems and change. It will also potentially give you an idea of how they will approach treatment. As you can see, if you are looking for therapy, there are going to be many different options in terms of what kind of therapist you feel you need.

If you are specifically looking for counseling, it is imperative to make sure you find someone who is licensed. The licensing process is very long and in depth. Most fully licensed professionals have spent thousands of hours under clinical supervision. This process helps legitimize the license and ideally leaves them highly competent and experienced. If you see letters at the end of someone’s name and do not recognize them, it is encouraged you look at what those mean. People who receive mental health services are being provided with a paid service. As a consumer, it is important to make sure that service is beneficial, helpful, and meeting your needs. Doing your homework and processing through what kind of services you might need can allow you to receive the help you are truly seeking.

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Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.
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