In this series, we take questions we are asked most frequently and answer them here on Youtube. This month we answer the much asked question What’s the difference between a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a psychotherapist?
The mental health system can sometimes feel like a maze. Trying to get the support you need can feel like an uphill battle.
One of the things that makes it so difficult to navigate is this sort of language and terminology that is used, which often, no-one thinks to explain to you.
So let’s start with the psychiatrist.
This is someone who is medical doctor, a bit like your GP. They have a degree in medicine (which includes studying all sorts of physical health problems as well as mental health) and would have then gone on to do specialist training in mental health to become a psychiatrist.
Because of this they tend to focus mainly on physical treatments for mental health problems, such as medication, but they can supervise other types of treatments, like talking therapies too.
You’re probably most likely to meet them at a hospital, whether you’re there as an inpatient, or just visiting them for an appointment. But they can sometimes work in GP surgeries or community mental health centres too.
Next up is the psychologist. A psychologist has mostly studied, funnily enough, psychology.
This means their focus is on behaviour, thoughts, feelings and the motivations behind our actions, rather than the physical side of things, which is taken care of by the psychiatrist.
They aren’t usually medical doctors in the way that psychiatrists are, although they might have studied for just as long and might have a ‘Dr’ before their name because of this.
They will be able to refer you to talking treatments like counselling, CBT, psychodynamic therapy, family therapy, art therapy. That sort of thing. But because they aren’t medically trained, they can’t prescribe medication to you.
You might meet psychologists in places like GP surgeries and hospitals. They often work in teams with other mental health professionals, like psychiatrists, social workers and psychotherapists.
Not everyone with a mental health problem will end up seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. This is because for many people a GP will be able to help to prescribe certain types of medication, and they will be able to refer you to therapy too.
Psychiatrists and Psychologists are often there for us if we need a bit more specialist knowledge – say if you are having experiences which are particularly complicated or are making you feel unsafe, or if some of the more common treatments available from the GP haven’t helped you.
Finally we have the psychotherapist. This is someone who I hope a lot more of you would see - because psychotherapists are the people who carry out talking therapies which have been proven to be helpful with a whole range of different mental health problems.
You might hear them called just ‘therapist’ or ‘counsellor’ - although technically ‘counselling’ is a distinct type of psychotherapy.
A psychotherapist might have a specialism in a certain type of therapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy … or they might know lots about one particular diagnosis or set of symptoms.
Because they are all about carrying out treatment you might see them a bit more regularly than a psychiatrist or psychologist, who are more likely to be involved with making decisions about your treatment.
Confusingly, a psychotherapist may actually be a psychiatrist or psychologist as well, but they don’t have to be.
They should however always be qualified in the type of therapy they are carrying out. This means they have had specific training and have passed a test to say they know what they are doing.
If you’ve been referred to them through the NHS, this shouldn’t be a problem as you have to have these checked before getting a job there, but if you’re seeing someone privately (i.e. paying for them) it’s always worth checking their qualifications.
You can do this by asking them or by checking their accreditation on the UK Council for Psychotherapy website.
So that is the psychiatrist, the psychologist and the psychotherapist.
Which of these three types of people you meet in the course of your treatment will depend on how services are set up in your area and what problems you are struggling with.
You might have all three of these on your care team, or you might have none at all.
But remember - if you’re confused about what someone’s role is, what their qualifications are, or why you’re seeing them, they should always explain it to you in a way that you understand.
If you are not getting the answers you need, you might want to consider getting an advocate. We have info on that here.