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July 16, 2021

Who Should I See? Psychiatrist, Psychologist or Therapist?

Therapist, Psychologist, Psychiatrist – What’s the Difference?

According to the United States House of Representatives, July is officially BeBe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (BMC-MHA). Many have shortened the name to BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, but we won’t do that. We must keep BeBe Moore Campbell’s name because her short-lived span of work trail-blazed us here. That being said, what better month than this to break down the differences between three interchangeably used titles that aren’t so interchangeable? What titles you may ask?  We’re talking about therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists. 

What is Therapy? 

Therapy is remediation of physical, mental, or behavioral disorders or disease. Another word for therapy is psychotherapy, sometimes used when treating mental disorders. In this case, we are exploring therapy in the conversational sense, talk-therapy. If you’ve ever broken a bone, you understand physical therapy is not about conversation. It’s about physical work that can be quite painful. While talk-therapy is about discovering how to manage one's mental or behavioral challenges and creating a mental health strategy.

Personal Experience

I don’t believe in medication unless it is absolutely necessary. I like to find alternative methods that don’t involve pills, pills, pills. To help my son with his anxiety, I chose to take him to a therapist for talk-therapy. The therapist was great, yet we learned, on a scale of 1 to 10, my son’s consistent anxiety level was 9. There was no way for us (my son, myself, nor his therapist) to gauge or monitor his anxiety level if it’s always at 9. This discovery prompted his therapist to advise a psychiatrist visit. 

My son needed to FEEL level 5 anxiety to help him understand and regulate his levels. His anxiety would not come down to level 5 without medication. In came the psychiatrist, the only therapist that can prescribe medication. The psychiatrist started with one prescription and then it went up to three. We’re working to get it back down to one. 


Psychiatrists specialize in diagnosing mental disorders with medications and some therapy depending on the psychiatrist. They are the most intense of the three because they are medical doctors. At the same time, not all psychiatrists provide therapy. You need to ask if therapy is part of their services. Without therapy, psychiatrists engage, question and test to make sure they are prescribing the right medication, if medication is necessary. 

Psychologists also diagnose mental disorders and provide talk-therapy. They are a mix of psychiatrists and therapists with a little more education than therapists yet can’t prescribe medication. There are 20 different types of psychologists so you must do your research to learn which one is best for your child’s progress. For example:

  • A clinical psychologist – trained in mental health – will diagnose your child with mental, cognitive or behavioral disorders.

  • An educational psychologist studies the data and students’ work to determine the best course of action as a whole, group data if you will. 

  • A school psychologist works directly with your child to assess if their issues are academic or behavioral.

  • A clinical or school psychologist can provide therapy and usually does on some level.

Therapists provide therapy through a method called talk-therapy or psychotherapy. The purpose is to communicate with and listen to patients in order to identify what’s causing mental/emotional distress. 

The term “therapist” is the only title of the three interchangeable because at their core, therapy is the baseline of psychologists and psychiatrists’ treatments.

Most schools, if not every school from K – 12, has a school psychologist. In some states, it’s mandatory. If you are wondering where to start because the information may be overwhelming, start with the school psychologist. Continue your research as well. The more you learn, the better advocate for your child you become. 

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