Psychiatrist or Psychologist?
Common Mental Health Terms You Should Know and Understand
Dawn M. Baldwin, M.S.
When you are first starting to utilize mental health services, it can be very confusing to understand what several words mean, especially when others may mistakenly use the terms synonymously. In my daily work, I hear many people use the terms “psychiatrist” and “psychologist” interchangeably, presumably because the words sound very similar. However, these words denote titles of professionals who perform different mental health services. In this article, I will define three important titles of mental health providers: psychiatrist, psychologist, and therapist/counselor.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in prescribing medications to help in the treatment of mental illnesses. The psychiatrist has completed medical school, so they will have an M.D. after their name. It is the psychiatrists’ job to listen to your SYMPTOMS not a detailed account of your issues in order to decide what medication might be helpful to you. Appointments with psychiatrists tend to be short in duration (15-20 minutes) and you will often meet with the psychiatrist on a monthly basis to monitor how the medications are working to manage your symptoms.

A psychologist is a mental health professional who has obtained a doctoral degree in psychology, they will usually have a Ph.D. after their name. Here is an important note: Psychologists CANNOT prescribe medications!!! Most psychologists perform mental health therapy/counseling, which is a type of face-to-face process where you and the psychologist discuss your issues and what goals you would like to achieve. These counseling sessions usually last about an hour, and occur on a weekly basis. Psychologists, due to their extensive training, are also qualified to perform several types of evaluations, such as I.Q. tests, personality assessments, and disability evaluations.

Unlike the terms “psychiatrist” and “psychologist”, therapist and counselor are titles which CAN be used interchangeably! A therapist/counselor is a mental health professional who typically has a master’s degree in either psychology or social work. They have received education and training in various ways to help people manage their emotional or behavioral problems. Therapists/counselors will discuss your problems with you in detail and work with you to achieve your goals. The sessions with a therapist/counselor typically last about an hour and occur on a weekly basis.

I hope these brief definitions can assist you in better understanding the services offered by mental health providers. As in other contexts, sometimes the people working in the specific field make assumptions about the knowledge of the consumers. Of course, you may encounter additional mental health providers such as caseworkers, therapeutic support staff and others but the definitions in this article can give you a basic knowledge from which to build.