The Differences Between a Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist, Clinical Social Worker and Counsellor

There are many different types of mental health professionals that one can see for help. It can be confusing to know the differences between them and which one is right for you. 

This article will discuss the differences between psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, psychotherapists, and counsellors. We will also provide information on what each type of professional does and how they can help you. So, if you are wondering whether or not you should see a psychologist, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, psychotherapist, or counsellor, read on!

What Do Psychologists Do?

Psychologist and client sitting on sofa

Psychologists are mental health professionals who have completed post-graduate studies in psychology. They are trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental illness. Psychologists can provide therapy, but they cannot prescribe medication. 

If you see a psychologist, they will use a variety of therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness, Schema and EMDR Therapy to help you change your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Psychologists at Therapy Online are very experienced in providing a variety of therapies but focus on EMDR Therapy which is a speciality treatment for trauma.

What Do Psychiatrists Do?

Psychiatrist in session with a patient

Psychiatrists are mental health professionals who are firstly doctors, who then study the human mind and mental illnesses. They try to make sense of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours that are considered to be disordered and require medication. 

The psychiatrist's job is to diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe treatments for them. Psychiatrists work with patients to identify the underlying causes of their problems by talking about their symptoms, family history and other factors. 

A psychiatrist typically has a medical degree and completes a further five years of training in psychiatry to be eligible for board registration. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, but they may also offer psychotherapy or other therapeutic approaches.

What Do Clinical Social Workers Do?

Two women during a therapy session

A clinical social worker is a social worker who has gone on to complete studies in therapies that focus on treating mental illness.  Similar to a psychologist, a Clinical Social Worker can offer a variety of interventions that may help to improve mental health, but they can not prescribe medication. Some clinical social workers are eligible for Medicare rebates, but you should check this prior to engaging with them.

What Do Psychotherapists Do?

Couple therapy with a Psychotherapist

A psychotherapist uses a variety of therapies to treat people for emotional problems and mental illnesses. They can work with individuals, couples, groups, or families. 

Psychotherapists are mental health professionals who have completed an undergraduate degree in psychology, social work, or counselling. Depending on what degree and specialty they get, psychotherapists can assess, diagnose and treat mental illness. Psychotherapists can provide a variety of therapies but can’t prescribe medication.

What Do Counsellors Do?

Counselling young girl

Counsellors are mental health professionals who have completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or counselling. They are trained to assess and provide therapy for mental health challenges and interpersonal problems. Counsellors cannot prescribe medication.  Counsellors are often found providing services in not-for-profit organisations and may offer family therapy in private practice.

The Differences Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists,  Clinical Social Workers, Psychotherapists and Counsellors

In Australia, the main difference between these four types of mental health professionals relates to their areas of expertise, the cost to access and eligibility for Medicare rebates. The main difference is their education and training, the ability to obtain rebates from Medicare (Psychiatrists, Psychologists and Clinical Social Workers) or through private health funds (psychotherapists and counsellors) for their services. 

When a mental health professional is eligible for Medicare rebates, that means they are a registered health professional and their fees will be higher than for a psychotherapist or counsellor. Their qualifications translate to the level of care they can provide and their ability to prescribe medication.

The Difference Between a Psychologist and Psychiatrist: What Sets Them Apart

Comparison between psychologist and psychiatrist

Psychologists and psychiatrists are both mental health professionals, but they have different training and backgrounds. Psychologists study for six years and hold post-graduate qualifications in psychology, they can provide Medicare rebateable services. Psychiatrists are first trained as medical doctors who have completed a further five years of specialised training in psychiatry. Because of their different training, psychologists and psychiatrists approach mental health from different perspectives. 

Psychologists focus on a variety of therapies to help patients understand and change their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Psychiatrists take a more medical approach, often prescribing medication to treat mental illness. Both psychologists and psychiatrists can provide valuable treatment for mental illness, so they often work in collaboration with each other to support a patient in their recovery. It is important to discuss your needs with each type of professional to decide how each one might support you. 

Psychologists and Psychiatrists have the highest levels of education and are therefore able to provide the most comprehensive care for patients. However, as there is a shortage of mental health professionals in Australia, it is common to work with both professionals if you have significant mental health challenges that may have a medical basis. 

Both psychologists and psychiatrists can help you manage mental illness and live a healthy, happy life. If you are struggling with mental health issues, don't hesitate to reach out for help. A psychologist or psychiatrist can make all the difference in your recovery.

The Difference Between a Psychologist and Psychotherapist

Psychotherapists have less education than psychologists, similar to counsellors. Counsellors have specialised education that focuses on the development of interpersonal skills, and therefore they often provide effective talk therapies. 

The main difference between these four types of mental health professionals is the type of therapy they use and their ability to prescribe medication. Only psychiatrists can prescribe medication. Psychiatrists and psychologists tend to be more clinical in their approach and are eligible for support under our public health care system through Medicare. 

Counsellors and psychotherapists are trained in varying types of therapy and may specialise in one area of focus - such as family therapy.  Services provided by Counsellors or psychotherapists are not eligible for Medicare rebates but may be eligible for private health fund rebates, depending on the fund and their qualifications.

Which type of mental health professional is right for you?

If you are looking for someone to provide the most comprehensive care, a psychologist is a right choice for you. If you are looking for someone to provide less comprehensive care, a counsellor is a right choice for you. And if you are looking for someone who can prescribe medication (depending on their state’s laws), a psychiatrist is the right choice for you. 

If you are seeking treatment for a mental illness, the first step is to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. They can provide you with a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or both. Once you have seen a psychologist or psychiatrist, you can decide if you would like to continue seeing them for treatment. 

And If you’re experiencing any kind of emotional distress and don’t know where to turn, consider booking a session with Therapy Online. We have a team of qualified psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors who can help you get your life back on track.

Kerry Howard
Kerry Howard

Kerry Howard is a best-selling author and psychologist specialising in trauma prevention and treatment. Kerry has won two international awards for her commitment to treating PTSD and improving mental health in Australia. In 2021 Kerry won the Excellence in Science and Technology Award for her pioneering work in the delivery of online trauma therapy. Kerry is the pioneer of EMDR Therapy delivered in an online environment. She developed REMDR in 2017 and when the global pandemic hit in 2020, Kerry was at the forefront of training the EMDR world in how to effectively and ethically deliver EMDR Therapy in an online environment. As an EMDR Consultant, Kerry continues to evolve therapeutic delivery by embracing technology. Kerry’s book, ‘The Trouble with Trauma’ provides clear guidance for individuals about how to resolve traumatic experiences for themselves. For more visit: