Therapists vs Psychologists: How are they different?

A common question in mental healthcare is, what is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist? Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, and there is a bit of confusion.


A common question asked within the mental healthcare space is what is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist? Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, and there appears to be quite a bit of confusion surrounding their context and definitions in both group and private practices. However, therapists and psychologists have slight differences, and it's important that you become acquainted with them. 

Using the correct terminology is a huge component of healthcare, so it's important that you wrap your head around which term to use in what situation. It's more than just semantics; being able to employ the right terminology at the right time can elevate the quality of your professional practice, and ensure that you're providing patients with the highest level of care. Therapists and psychologists have different responsibilities, however slight, and you must become familiar with them in order to prioritize patient needs and grow your business in a focused direction.

Understanding a therapist’s occupation by definition

A therapist is a broad term that applies to a number of psychological professions. This means that all psychologists can be referred to as therapists, however, not all therapists are considered psychologists. For example, there are many different types of mental health counselors and life coaches who work within the therapy specialty, however, they are not considered psychologists due to the lack of training and qualifications required. There can be licensed and unlicensed therapists, and each of them will use different approaches to evaluate the psychological well-being of a client. Additionally, they can provide diagnoses and specific treatments to improve the quality of life of their clients.

Who is a psychologist?

A psychologist, on the other hand, is a social scientist who has specific training within a subfield of psychology. This typically involves intensive education experience, which may entail a master's or Ph.D. degree, in addition to an undergraduate degree. Psychologists must be registered and approved with a number of clinical hours completed. There are also many different specialties within psychology, and some psychologists continue with academic research, whereas others choose to advance within mental illness fields to work within therapeutic and clinical settings. There are many different types of psychologists including child, organizational, industrial, developmental, forensic, and school psychologists to name a few.

Are there similarities between a therapist and a psychologist?

There are multiple similarities between therapists and psychologists, including that they both focus on mental health. Many therapists and psychologists share the same foundation for which they expand their emotional well-being knowledge. Therapists and psychologists tend to have an extensive understanding of mental illnesses and how they present, as well as how they are treated and how they are assessed. Both are likely to meet with patients in an appointment to work towards treatment plans that alleviate mental health issues, problems, challenges, and barriers. Both disciplines also aim to increase the day-to-day well-being of clients and work towards improved mental health.  

Additionally, both therapists and psychologists cannot prescribe medication to clients. This responsibility falls to psychiatrists, who are trained doctors and are authorized to prescribe medications. Although psychologists need greater training than therapists, in a general sense, both therapists and psychologists will need to have the right licenses to be able to comply with regulatory bodies and assist patients. This also includes counselors and mentors, as expertise and authority should be proven in cases where professional judgment is required, however, this isn’t as heavily enforced. 

Key differences between therapists vs psychologists

Of course, there are numerous key differences when it comes to therapists and psychologists that you should know. Although mistakenly used interchangeably, there are some nuances to each discipline that you should take into consideration when using the terms.


One of the major differences between therapists and psychologists is the number and type of specialties that each can train and specialize in. For psychologists, there are numerous branches that they may specialize in, and that is useful to better understand mental illness and to further the depth and care of psychological research. For instance, there are legal, forensic, developmental, organizational, child, clinical, counseling, and school psychologists which can aid in numerous fields.  Therapists also have specializations, however, they differ from psychologists in that they do not necessarily focus on branches. Rather, they focus on concentrated areas that may not be as broad. Many therapists hold specialized titles such as licensed marriage and family therapists, as well as licensed certified alcohol and drug abuse counselors.

Qualifications and Training

Perhaps one of the greatest distinctions between therapists and psychologists is the training and qualifications involved within each specialty. Psychologists undertake extensive training, usually attending graduate school and earning a postgraduate degree, whether that be a master's or a Ph.D. This is accompanied by clinical internships, state exams, and clinical rotations in order to treat patients within a professional clinical setting. Psychologists will need to be registered with thousands of hours before they are recognized, whereas therapists do not require even a quarter of this training. 

Therapists can hold licenses however many states do not enforce or govern qualifications especially those within the life coach area. Although advanced degrees can elevate the quality of service therapists provide, it is not essential. Because psychologists rely on diagnosing and understanding patients in a clinical sense, they are required to undertake more training, whereas therapists do not have to diagnose.

Areas of treatment

Psychologists tend to be trained within symptom-focused treatments for mental health, which can typically range from short-term to long-term. As mentioned, they can be within a variety of psychology branches and are based on scientific evidence and research approaches led by social scientists. This differs majorly from therapists, where counselors, life coaches, mentors, psychotherapists, and such, tend to utilize talk therapy and focus on very specific issues in specific areas. This typically includes addictions and substance abuse counseling, as well as couples and marriage counseling to name a few. Essentially, in any area that a therapist sees demand for, relevant therapy specializations can develop. 

Framework use

Finally, therapists and psychologists also differ as they tend to gravitate towards different frameworks. Psychologist frameworks tend to be rooted in academic research and science-based experiments, whereas therapy frameworks tend to work with the client's goals and objectives in mind and can be amended according to needs. Therapist frameworks are perhaps more flexible in this sense, whereas psychologist frameworks are typically used for specific situations, and to treat certain disorders. For example, psychologists commonly use cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, which are highly developed cognitive frameworks to assist client health. Many therapists will utilize frameworks that they may have developed themselves, or that work best with the client. 

Take home message

Hopefully, this guide has provided you with more in-depth information when it comes to acknowledging the use of therapist and psychologist terminologies. While each presents its own similarities, to say the terms are interchangeable can neglect some of their nuances and differences which validate them as different specializations. Therapists and psychologists are distinctly different, and as a clinician, you should ensure that you continue to uphold expertise and authority by classifying each one in an appropriate manner. 

This is also important if you are a mental health professional, and are branding yourself as either a therapist or psychologist. Make sure that you have the right qualifications and licensing in place, in order to uphold ethical and honest health standards, and that you are representing the level of education and experience you have acquired.

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