What Is the Difference Between a Therapist and a Psychologist?

Michelle Overman, LMFT
Updated on February 17, 2021

When seeking mental health services, it’s important to be informed. While the titles therapist and psychologist both refer to mental health professionals who are dedicated to improving the emotional and mental well-being of their patients, they do not exactly mean the same thing. Knowing some of these differences can help guide you in your search for the right professional.

psychologist vs therapist

The two titles commonly cause confusion among potential patients. We’ll explore some of the more nuanced differences, but in brief, there are many types of therapists, with psychologists being one of the more recognized among them.

Psychologists

What characterizes psychologists is an advanced degree and clinical training in psychology. This requires an undergraduate degree, a masters, and a doctorate in psychology, earning them either a PhD or PsyD degree. They are considered social scientists and may research and specialize in areas that interest them, such as counseling theory, general psychology, research, behavior modification, and diagnosing mental health disorders.

Psychologists receive rigorous training and undertake thousands of hours of supervised practice before they can practice on their own. The role of a psychologist is to diagnose and treat their patients and clients. A psychologist will often collaborate with a psychiatrist in treating a patient.

Therapists

This title broadly describes a number of disciplines within the world of mental health, and includes various kinds of psychologists, licensed social workers, counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Therapists can obtain different degrees in order to be able to work as therapists. Each degree must meet certain requirements and each license has to meet national (and/or state depending on the country you live in) requirements as well. Most therapists have secondary degrees, though in some states, it is possible to practice with only a bachelor’s degree under the supervision of a licensed therapist or psychologist.

While each degree includes training in 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 an in-depth knowledge of family systems, whereas someone with a social work degree and license will have a better background in families and their dynamics within the community.

The Importance of Working with a Professional

If you are looking for a counselor, it is imperative to make sure you find someone who is licensed. The licensing process is very long and demanding. 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 a professional’s name and do not recognize them, it is advisable to inquire as to what they mean. As a client, it is important to make sure that the treatment you receive is in line with the most up-to-date research and best practices. Doing your homework can help steer you in your search for a mental health professional.

Michelle Overman, LMFT

Michelle is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families.