The bottom line is: psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and counsellors are all mental health professionals you may approach for support if you are feeling unwell, be it because of a struggle you are dealing with, a situation you are in, or uncomfortable feelings resurfacing.
In an attempt to sharpen the blurriness surrounding mental health professions, I shall look at each profession and highlight the strengths of each, in a way that it is clearer for you to see what the main areas of expertise for each profession are. However, it is important to note right from the start that the effectiveness of therapy is not solely determined by the type of professional you choose, but rather by: 1) the therapeutic relationship you and your therapist build together, as well as 2) the specific characteristics of the therapist and client (APA, 2012). This means that your journey will be determined by how well you and your professional of choice work together, how comfortable you feel to share your pain and how safe you feel to let go.
Because we are all different, we would look for different characteristics in our therapist - to me, its competence, creativity, warmth and integrity. You, being different to me, may look for other aspects.
’Therapy is not solely determined by the type of professional you choose, but rather by the therapeutic relationship you and your therapist build together as well as the characteristics of the therapist and client' (APA, 2012)
We will now look into some strengths belonging to each group of professionals. Firstly, it is important to note that psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors work through ‘talking therapy’, which is a safe space where you would share your struggles, your challenges and pain - and together with your practitioner of choice, you would embark on a therapeutic journey. Throughout this journey, your uncomfortable feelings may go, and your circumstances might change - but in other instances, they will remain. In any case, working with a mental health professional will help you cope better and adjust your sails to lead a more fulfilling life - in spite of your challenges, not without them.
Secondly, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, she/he is someone you may go to for advice. Psychiatrists are the only professionals in this group who can prescribe medication. Their role may be crucial in bringing stability in your life if you are suffering from a mental health illness, in a way that you would be better able to function and connect with the world, with the least interruptions possible.
‘... Working with a mental health professional will help you cope better and adjust your sails to lead a more fulfilling life - in spite of your challenges, not without them‘
Whilst psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors all do talking therapy, they have different training, and thus different strengths. A clinical psychologist is specialised in the study of the human mind and behaviour. They are trained to diagnose and treat mental health disorders like schizophrenia or clinical depression (APA, 2019). Due to their scientific background, they are also well positioned to provide psychological support for brain related diseases such as dementia and Alzeimer’s disease. Whilst these are their specific strengths they also work with any population depending on their specific expertise.
When it comes to psychotherapists, there is an array of specific modalities such as: family therapists, play therapists, Gestalt psychotherapists and CBT therapists - just to name a few. A psychotherapist works with your present struggles as part of the bigger picture, looking at how the presenting symptoms interrupt your life whilst also looking into the root cause of your pain. Their work ranges from trauma and childhood issues, to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Because the work delves deep, the therapeutic journey usually spans over a longer period of time.
’A psychotherapist works with your present struggles as part of the bigger picture, looking at how the presenting symptoms interrupt your life whilst also looking into the root cause of your pain'
As the term entails, the counsellor usually counsels, guides and provides support in present and immediate life situations. A counsellor may be the right professional to approach if you require support with current issues in your life such as distress emanating from conflict, taking a difficult decision, changing jobs, grieving the loss of a loved one or adapting in a different country. Because counselling is more focused on action and behaviour, it is typically short-term.
A psychiatrist, being a medical doctor specialised in mental health and mental disorders, is able to diagnose, support, and is also responsible for medication management. Whilst she/he may provide general support in time of distress, their role is not strictly to carry out prolonged ‘talking therapy’- but the relationship may be described as a typical doctor-patient relationship, where the patient goes mainly for advice. Usually patients under the care of a psychiatrist would greatly benefit from therapy with either a psychologist or a psychotherapist, and for this reason many psychiatrists work with other professionals in the field.
’A psychiatrist, being a medical doctor specialised in mental health and mental disorders is able to diagnose, support, and he is also responsible for medication management…’
Notwithstanding their specific strengths, there is always overlap between the work of such professionals; a psychotherapist would probably commence the therapeutic journey with your immediate issue as part of the bigger picture, whilst a counsellor may delve into deeper work if that is supportive to your current situation. A psychiatrist may refer you to a psychologist or a psychotherapist for their input, and vice versa.
The bottom line is, they are all able to journey with you through life’s most difficult terrain, and the impetus of your journey will be determined by the therapeutic relationship you build together.
American Psychological Association (APA). (2014). Clinical psychology solves complex human problems. https://www.apa.org/action/science/clinical/index
American Psychological Association (APA). (2012). Recognition of Psychotherapy Effectiveness. https://www.apa.org/about/policy/resolution-psychotherapy