You’ve made the decision to seek out help. This is a huge first step, and you should congratulate yourself for making the commitment to doing the work to improve your life.
But now you’re tasked with finding exactly which person will best help you navigate the efforts ahead. While this may seem like a daunting task, understanding the differences among different mental or behavioral health care practitioners goes a long way toward preparing you to make the best possible decision.
How do I choose the right therapist?
I’m going to be honest with you: This may take some time. The only way you’ll know that your therapist is “right,” is by meeting with them. Several times. The therapeutic relationship is based on trust, and that isn’t established overnight. On top of that, you may find that a therapist’s style just doesn’t quite fit—perhaps they’re more analytical when you think you’d work better in an active, behavioral therapy framework. (If you aren’t familiar with these terms, don’t worry, we got you.) It can be frustrating, yes, but it’s worth it.
An easy place to start is to ask yourself what you’re hoping to get from therapy. Do you have a particular issue or trauma you want to deal with? Or are you looking for guidance as to how to establish healthy habits? There’s no incorrect—or inadequate—reason to get help, but narrowing this down might help you decide whom to see.
Should I see a psychiatrist or a psychologist?
Psychiatrists are mental health practitioners who have medical degrees—hence the initials “MD” after. This is a specific area of expertise: Psychiatrists are primarily focused on the chemical components of the brain and of mental health. Their expertise lies in diagnosing brain disorders and mental illnesses on a chemical level, and when necessary, prescribing pharmaceutical treatment for those.
More often than not, regular visits with a psychiatrist are much shorter than those with a psychologist, as the sessions are limited to assessing the effectiveness of prescribed drugs on specific symptoms.
Often, one is referred to a psychiatrist by a psychologist or therapist who believes there might be an underlying chemical issue and that medication should be considered as part of treatment. Similarly, if a psychiatrist has been prescribing medication to a client, and believes that person would benefit from psychotherapy, they can offer references. (Be that as it may, some psychiatrists also engage in talk therapy.)
Psychologists are also doctors, though they do not have medical degrees. Instead, they have PhDs in Psychology. Generally speaking, Psychologists are trained in talk therapy, and they are tasked with diagnosing, assessing, and treating mental disorders. If a psychologist deems there to be a chemical issue, they may refer their client to a psychiatrist whose medical expertise may support the work the Psychologist is undergoing with a client.
Other kinds of therapists
Here’s where things get a bit murkier. The word “therapist” can apply to any number of practitioners—including speech therapists, physical therapists, etc.or the purposes of this post, we’ll limit the scope to behavioral health therapists (that is, psychotherapists).
The title is often used as an umbrella category for counselors, social workers, coaches (more on these later), and other professionals who employ a variety of methodologies or who specialize in different focus areas. Because the word can be applied so broadly, you’ll find psychotherapists who have master’s degrees, doctorate degrees, medical degrees, or all three. All psychotherapists can assess, diagnose, and treat various mental or emotional disorders.
There is no one type of psychotherapy or psychotherapist. There are licensed marriage and family therapists, LMFTs, who focus on the inner workings of the relationships between family members or between spouses to support healthy connections and foster communication. There are group therapists, who work with several people who have similar concerns to encourage a sort of Socratic method of resolution. There are addiction and recovery therapists, who support those with substance abuse issues navigate the choppy waters of recovery. And so on, and so forth.
What is a social worker?
In many states in the U.S., social workers are officially deemed “psychotherapists,” though they have specific licensing requirements. Licensed clinical social workers, or LCSWs, differ slightly from other talk therapists in that they not only work with individuals and families, but with how those individuals fit into their broader communities. That is, in addition to counseling and talking cure, LCSWs can help connect people with resources (including government programs) to encourage mental wellness. They can avail themselves of any number of modalities and specialize in many of the above specialities.
What’s the difference between a therapist and a counselor?
The term “counselor” is widely used interchangeably with “therapist,” though technically, counseling is a separate area of focus. Some therapists who have completed a master’s program (or a PhD program) in Counseling Psychology differentiate themselves from other therapists by their concentration on development. This means they work proactively with their patients to achieve certain goals—think career development. But again, in many states you’ll find “counselor” to mean therapist.
What’s the difference between a therapist and a coach?
Some therapists consider themselves coaches. However, though a therapist can be a coach, a coach is not necessarily a therapist. This is due to the specific licensing regulations each title adheres to. To earn a license as a “therapist” an individual must undertake academic study—often a master’s degree or higher—along with in-office training with would-be clients. Coaching, on the other hand, is a largely unregulated field; just about anyone can call themselves a coach.
Beyond the academic credentials and licensing requisites, therapists are also required to complete hours of continuing education every year to ensure their knowledge and expertise remain both relevant and sharp. Coaches are not. Moreover, the aim of therapy and coaching is generally different: A therapist’s main objective is to treat and ameliorate the symptoms of a mental or emotional disorder. A coach, on the other hand, is focused on helping their clients achieve specific goals. That said, there is obviously quite a lot of overlap among coaches, counselors, and other kinds of therapists.
Don’t let these myriad specialties intimidate you. Each of these clinicians is most concerned with helping you feel better and take charge of your life; if they don’t think they’re exactly right, they’ll likely help you find someone who is. You’ve already taken the first step toward feeling better by making the decision you deserve support.