What’s the difference between a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and counsellor? I mean, it can be so overwhelming trying to figure out who can help you feel better. And sadly, when we are overwhelmed already it can feel almost impossible. How do you know who to go and see, who can help? Should you see a counsellor? A psychiatrist? A psychologist?
The long and the short of it is, the right therapist is the one you feel the most comfortable with. Most success of any counselling type intervention, is due to the connection that you have with your therapist. The feeling that they get you, that you click in some way and upmost that you feel safe, supported and not judged is paramount to the success of the intervention.
In this post, I am sharing with you the basic differences between seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and a counsellor. For what it’s worth I am also sharing some of my experienced. I encourage you to also do your own research and look for someone that you can build a connection with.
Seeing a psychiatrist.
Psychiatrists are medically trained doctors, which means they have the ability to prescribe medication. Although psychiatrists may do some counselling, their focus is usually on patients with serious mental illnesses that require medical intervention, in the way of prescription medication or hospital admission.
Seeing a psychiatrist can be quite expensive. It’s sort of like seeing any medical specialist. There is a considerable fee and you can wait a long time to get an appointment. The good news is that you may be able to claim a portion of the fee back on Medicare or through your private health insurance.
My experience with a psychiatrist.
I had a lovely experience with a psychiatrist when I was in my twenties. I’d insisted that I had to have a psychiatrist, as in my mind at the time, they would be the expert on me, they had the most training and they would be able to ‘fix’ me.
I had about ten or so sessions with a psychiatrist as a result, and it was a great experience. I generally felt heard and supported. But when I called her in distress one time, trying to make an appointment to see her as soon as possible, she told me that unless I wanted medication there was nothing that she could do for me. I remember feeling hurt, rejected and let down. At that time, I wasn’t open to medication and I don’t believe it was what I needed.
I should point out. The psychiatrist I was seeing didn’t do anything wrong. She was working within her field of reference.
Summary of working with a psychiatrist:
- Psychiatrists are medically trained and can prescribe and are the experts in mental health medication.
- Psychiatrists tend to deal with serious mental illnesses.
- To see a psychiatrist, you will need a medical referral from your doctor.
- Although psychiatrists may offer some psychotherapy or counselling services, this is not their primary scope of work.
Seeing a psychologist.
Psychologists, unlike psychiatrists, are not medically trained. But they are interested in how the brain works, how you think and how you behave. Unlike psychiatrists though, psychologists are not doctors and therefore, are unable to prescribe medication, admit patients into hospital or treat very serious mental illnesses. Psychologists often work within a medical framework of diagnosis and treatment and will work with clients to address symptoms. Most psychologist training doesn’t involve doing their own personal work.
You don’t need a referral from your doctor to see a psychologist, but if you do speak to your general practitioner, they may prescribe you a mental health treatment plan. This means that you will be able to claim a Medicare rebate for up to ten psychology sessions per year. This can be a good way to reduce the cost of your treatment and there are a few psychologists out there who will bulk -bill you for the sessions on your mental health care plan. This means that if you’re lucky, you could get the ten sessions for free! If your psychologist doesn’t bulk-bill though, the gap you will pay is usually around $100 per session.
My experience with a psychologist.
Personally, I have had some great, and some not-so-great experiences with psychologists. As I mentioned above, the connection between the patient and the therapist is so important. This can have a huge impact on the success of treatment and has been the primary factor in whether my psychology experiences have fallen into the great, or no-so-great categories.
Summary of working with a psychologist:
- Psychologists are not medically trained and cannot prescribe medication.
- You don’t need a referral from your doctor to see a psychologist, but you may be eligible for a mental health care plan if you are referred by a doctor.
- Mental health care plans entitle you to a Medicare rebate on up to 10 sessions with a psychologist, mental health social worker or occupational therapist. If you are lucky this could mean 10 free sessions but generally the gap is between $100 and $160 per session.
Seeing a psychotherapist.
Psychotherapists are not medically trained, though it is important to note that some psychiatrists and psychologists are also trained in psychotherapy. Psychotherapists cannot prescribe medication. Their focus is on working with the healing power of the relationship between therapist and client. The latest research into neuroscience supports this approach.
Working with a psychotherapist tends to be a bit deeper and looks to what is underneath the symptoms. This means that in working with a psychotherapist, you are looking for the root cause of your issues, rather than just resolving individual problems at a conscious level. The benefit of this is, is that clients often experience more dramatic changes, as they are delving deeper into their psychological history and spending time reflecting on your situation, thoughts, feelings and actions. Work with a psychotherapist can be short or long term, depending on the client’s needs. Psychotherapists tend to work in a client centred way where the client is empowered to acknowledge their own wisdom and expertise on themselves.
My experience with a psychotherapist.
If you haven’t already noticed my bias, here it is in black and white. Psychotherapy is the approach that worked best for me and that felt like coming home. As a client, I felt immediately validated, heard and accepted for where I was at the time. It may have been more my therapist than the approach but I felt able to be wherever I was at the time without pressure to be or do differently.
Being attended to in this way meant that change happened over time. Being supported to become aware and truly accept where you are right now is, in my experience, the only way that change occurs. Generally studying psychotherapy requires personal work. For me, when choosing a therapist, I would want to know what personal work they have done. I don’t want to sit as a client with someone who hasn’t also done the same. Being human is complicated and therapists are not somehow immune. If they were they would be missing out on a huge amount of necessary insight to be effective in their jobs.
Summary of working with a psychotherapist:
- Psychotherapists cannot give Medicare rebates but sometimes you can get private health rebates
- Most likely your therapist will have once sat in the clients chair as part of their training
- Psychotherapists tend to work relationally and believe in the healing power of connection
- Often psychotherapists and interested in looking what is underneath a symptom rather than treating the symptom
Seeing a counsellor.
Counsellors are many and varied. There are a lot of different types, with different types of training. As a general rule (but as we know general rules can be broken), counselling tends to be provided to work on a particular issue and tends to involve practical advice. It is often also of a shorter term nature. Counsellors are available in specific areas, for example a drug and alcohol counsellor or a grief counsellor. All qualified mental health practitioners can provide counselling and some are qualified as a counsellor – I hope this makes sense!
Summary of working with a counsellor:
- No rebates but often community organisation provide free counselling
- As a general rule could be short term and specific to a type of problem
I also want to pay homage to and acknowledge the vast expanse of other practitioners that can also help. This includes breathwork practitioners, equine therapists, reiki healers and so on and so on.
If you haven’t found something that works for you yet then keep trying. Believe me, its really worth it. Nothing is worth investing in more than your mental health. If you would like to find out more information about my services, you can do so here.