What are the differences among psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and counselors?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who is trained in treating mental health issues and mood disorders with medication.  The general term for a professional who treats individuals by talking and listening, and through applying learning theory, is a therapist.  Usually when we say therapist or psychotherapist, we are referring to a psychologist, social worker or counselor.  Technically, however, a therapist can be anyone with a high school diploma; anyone can call himself or herself a therapist.  Therefore, when selecting a therapist, it is a good idea to learn about each candidate's background, credentials and training. 

Psychologists, social workers and counselors are all licensed professionals.  This means that they have a certain degree of training, they have demonstrated their proficiency in these techniques, they adhere to a professional code of ethics, and they are required to participate in significant continuing education.  Although there is a great deal of overlap, there are differences among psychologists, social workers and counselors.  A psychologist is someone who has earned a doctoral level degree in psychology, and who has become licensed in providing psychological services to the public.  Psychologists are specifically trained in treating patients through psychotherapy, by listening to them, talking to them, and applying different learning, cognitive and personality theories to help intervene and promote change.  In addition, most psychologists are specifically trained in research and are probably the best consumers of scientific psychological studies, and are best prepared to try to apply these research findings to their practice with patients.  Another factor that separates psychologists from counselors and social workers is psychological testing.  Although there are exceptions, (some counselors and school psychologists) psychologists are the only professionals who are specifically trained in administering, scoring and interpreting psychological tests.  These tests include personality assessments, cognitive or intellectual assessments, and other more specific tests such as those to provide or rule out a specific diagnosis.  They also administer an array of academic and vocational assessments. 

Social workers, in contrast, are not doctoral level professionals, but rather have earned a masters degree in social work.  They, too, are specifically trained in psychotherapy, working with patients by listening and talking with them.  Where psychologists probably receive more training in terms of research and personality structure and theory, social workers receive more and better training in some of the social and societal factors that might affect individuals, and also in using different social services and resources in the community.

Counselors, who may include marriage counselors or marriage and family therapy counselors, are also masters level professionals trained in psychotherapy.  In addition, some counselors have pursued extra training to allow them to administer certain types of tests and assessments under particular conditions. 


< Back to All FAQs