If you’re seeking therapy for the first time, the number of different terms might be overwhelming. Should you see a psychotherapist or a social worker? A counselor or a coach? A psychiatrist or a psychologist?
Some of these names are more or less synonyms, while others have very defined meanings. It helps to know what each type of therapist can offer you, so you can find the right fit for you.
A psychologist is an official term for someone who has their doctorate in psychology. Some psychologists work in research only, but many work as therapists to provide mental health support for clients.
A psychologist has the following characteristics:
Has earned a doctorate in psychology
Can provide treatment through talk therapy with clients
Cannot prescribe medications, but may refer you to someone who can
Must be licensed to practice within one particular state
A psychiatrist is a medical physician who has completed their residency in psychiatry. Residency is a period of training after medical school in which the graduate is a “doctor in training” in their desired field of work—in this case, psychiatry.
A psychiatrist has the following characteristics:
Has earned their medical degree
Has completed psychiatric residency
Diagnoses and treats mental health conditions
May perform laboratory testing for diagnostics
Can perform treatments like electroconvulsive therapy
Prescribes medication for mental health conditions
Can offer psychotherapy (but many do not)
Tend to meet clients for shorter sessions to help monitor and manage medication efficacy
“If you’re seeing a psychiatrist and on medication, it is encouraged to also see a therapist,” says Cara Maksimow, LCSW. This provides a more well-rounded approach and tends to improve medication efficacy.
Therapist is a tricky word because it sometimes serves as a catch-all term. Since psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers can all offer therapy, they could all fairly refer to themselves as therapists. Their patients are also likely to just call them “their therapist.”
That said, if someone is a therapist but does not have a doctorate in psychology or a medical degree, it often means they are a licensed clinical social worker, or LCSW.
LCSWs often have the following characteristics:
Earned a master’s degree in psychology, social work, or counseling
Completed post-masters training in a clinical setting under professional supervision
Passed a licensing exam in order to practice in their state
Some terms you might hear less frequently are counselors and coaches (such as a “life coach” or “therapeutic coach”).
Counselor is yet another catch-all term that has less defined meaning. “A lot of social workers call themselves counselors,” says Maksimow. “As an LCSW, I say I’m a counselor, therapist, [or] psychotherapist.” For this reason, if someone calls themselves a counselor, you can assume they meet the criteria listed above for LCSWs.
Coach is not a regulated term, and they are not considered medical providers. As such, “a coach is not able to be reimbursed through any medical or mental health benefits,” says Maksimow. In other words, your insurance won’t cover your sessions with them.
“However, a coach can be really helpful. A coach can help you work on setting goals, learn strategies, [or] help you problem solve,” says Maksimow.
No matter which type of therapist you see, find out what to expect at your first therapy session here.
Clinical social work. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers. (Accessed on July 17, 2020)
How to choose a psychologist. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2019. (Accessed on July 17, 2020)
For additional resources or to connect with mental health services in your area, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. For immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.
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