Counselor or Therapist? Psychologist or Psychiatrist? How To Choose The Mental Health Professional That’s Right For You

 Writen by Mindole Clark

You’ve taken the first step, and decided that you need support and guidance to help you work through an issue that’s been on your mind for a while, or has only recently surfaced. Or maybe you’re in need of an objective ear to help you understand yourself better. Seeking the help of a mental health professional isn’t always an easy decision, so take a moment to appreciate the work you’re ready to put into yourself. 

The next step is finding the right person to help. This can be a bit overwhelming. A quick search can yield many results, and it’s not always clear which kind of professional might be best for your particular needs.

Here then, is a quick field guide to help you navigate the search.


Counseling vs. Therapy

These terms are often used interchangeably, and the differences between them can often depend on the individual practitioner. In general, counseling can be a way of solving a problem that has recently been affecting your life, while therapy may go deeper and longer, addressing overall mental health and well-being. 

Counselor, Psychologist, Psychiatrist

The main difference between mental health practitioners is the type and length of education that they have received. In general, a counselor has a Master’s degree in Psychology, and usually needs at least two years of supervised experience before practicing on their own. A psychologist has a phD in Psychology, and usually receives two to three years of additional training in a specific type of psychotherapy, such as CBT, Gestalt, or psychoanalysis. Finally, a psychiatrist has a medical degree (MD or DO), and is able to prescribe medication. Finding a psychiatrist is important for people who may need medical treatment for depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. Depending on the practitioner, a psychiatrist can also provide therapy, or may refer their clients to a counselor or psychologist to provide this service.

It is also important to note that both counselors and psychologists may refer to their services as either counseling or therapy. 

Choosing The Right Practitioner For You

The most important part of the process is finding a practitioner who is right for you. Whether it’s a psychologist who asks the right questions or a counselor who prompts you to reflect on your deepest concerns, it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable speaking with, and who uses a method that you find effective.

Starting with a general therapist or counselor, you may want to note the type of education and the specializations that they have qualified in. Behavioral therapists may focus on actions, while cognitive therapists focus on thoughts. Practitioners with a humanistic approach may look at individuals as a whole, with an emphasis on one’s experience as a process of self-discovery. Many mental health practitioners today take an integrative approach,  meaning that they consider and incorporate many of the thoughts and practices that apply on an individual basis. A good mental health practitioner will always be responsive to your needs, so don’t be afraid to ask them in the initial sessions about their process, what you can expect, and what may need to be adjusted in order for you to get the most from your sessions. It may take you more than one try to find the right fit, and the first sessions may be difficult, so be patient, be open, and you will get the most benefit from your treatment.

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