• Taylor Adams, MA, LPC

Psychiatrist? Psychologist? Counselor? Social Worker? Therapist? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Most of us have heard these terms and know that they are associated with the field of mental health; however, when seeking treatment, which should we be looking for?  Does it even matter?

Well, sort of.  Allow me to explain...

Whichever clinician you reach out to, they’ll generally be able to point you in the most appropriate direction.  It might save you some time and energy, though, to have an idea of these related, yet different fields.

A good initial question to ask yourself is: What am I looking for?

If your answer involves psychiatric medication, then you’ll need to reach out to someone in the medical field.  In other words, a psychiatrist.  They are doctors with medical degrees in the specialty known as psychiatry.  Some psychiatrists conduct therapy with their patients; however, in general, they focus on the diagnosing and treatment of mental illness with medical interventions (for example, psychiatric medication).  Furthermore, psychiatric nurses and mental health nurse practitioners are registered nurses with graduate degrees and specialized training and can also prescribe psychiatric medications.  Sometimes, it can take several weeks to get in for an appointment with a psychiatrist. Because of this, some people choose to meet with their general practitioner or family doctor to discuss options for psychiatric medications as well, and in many cases, they will write a prescription for them.

Letters after name: MD, DO, PMHAPRN

If you’re not considering medication (or, aren’t quite sure yet), there are other routes to take to improve your overall wellbeing.  Although I’ll go into a brief description of each branch, let’s first look at which professionals can practice talk therapy.

The answer is easy - all of them!

Yes, Psychologists, Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage & Family Therapists can practice talk therapy.  Each field brings its own flavor; nonetheless, all practitioners whose licenses are affiliated with these branches have received advanced training in providing therapy and hold a graduate degree(s).  Below are some of the nuances between these different professionals:

Psychologists - Psychologists hold doctorate degrees in accredited programs in psychology.  They are trained to assess, diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental illness, emotional disturbance, and other behavioral disturbances.  There are many specialties within psychology; for example, clinical, school, forensic, organizational, and more. Beyond therapy, many psychologists are sought out for psychological testing (for example, IQ or neurological function).

Letters after name: PhD or PsyD

Counselor: Counselors hold a minimum of a master’s degree (e.g., Clinical Mental Health Counseling).  They are trained to assess, diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental illness, emotional disturbance, and other behavioral disturbances.  Counselors are heavily trained in therapeutic approaches and have access to a broad range of modalities to treat individuals.

Letters after name: LPC, LMHC, LPCC, LPCC-S, LMHC-S

Social Worker: Social workers who hold a bachelor’s degree (BSW) provide direct services in regard to case management and resource coordination.  At a master’s level (MSW), Social workers hold graduate degrees and have advanced training in social services and are equipped in managing large caseloads, taking on supervisory and administrative roles, and making assessments.  Clinical Social Workers are trained to assess, diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental illness, emotional disturbance, and other behavioral disturbances. Much of their focus considers how individuals are affected by their environment and resources.

Letters after name: LSW, LISW, LCSW, LICSW, LMSW, LISW-S, LCSW-S

Marriage and Family Therapist: These therapists hold a minimum of a master’s degree in their field.  They are trained to assess, diagnose, treat, and help prevent mental illness, emotional disturbance, and other behavioral disturbances.  As their title suggests, they have specialized training in working with couples and families. *And NO, you do not have to be considering or going through divorce in order to benefit from couple's counseling.

Letters after name: LMFT

Chemical Dependency Counselor: There are several “levels” within this field, ranging from an associate’s level to a master’s (or higher). These professionals have specialized training in helping people who suffer from drug dependency break the cycles of addiction and regain their lives.  Advanced practitioners are able to make diagnoses in addition to treating chemical dependency conditions through individual and group therapy.

Letters after name: CDA, LCDC II, LCDC III, LICDC

This is a very simplified explanation of the mental health fields, respectively.  Each state has a licensing board with distinct regulations.  There is often overlap within the professions. For example, a psychologist may specialize in addiction or a counselor may apply a family systems approach to therapy.  It’s beneficial to understand that each clinician is unique and has their own style.  For people who may have had an unfavorable experience with a specific practitioner, it’s important to know that the client’s experience is valid, but not necessarily representative of the profession as a whole.  Finding the right therapist is not a one-size-fits-all process. It may take a few sessions to build rapport and a therapeutic relationship. It might even require meeting with a different therapist to find a “good fit.”  Many therapists have online profiles through directories such as or mini-biographies on their group practice’s website.  Reading their profile can give you an idea of their specialties and, sometimes, a snapshot of their overall “essence” which can help you make a decision on which practitioner to pursue therapy with.

If you’re on the path of improving your mental and emotional wellbeing, you’re certainly in the right place.  In most instances, simply reaching out to any of these providers can guide you toward the next step whether that’s through a consultation, initial assessment, or referral.