Mental health is a hugely important part of overall wellbeing, and the conversation around its importance is starting to catch up with the facts.
MIND report that one in four people experience a mental health problem of some kind every year in England. And recognised mental health problems aren’t even the full picture – stress from everyday life, bereavement, relationship issues, and trauma are just some examples of other mental or emotional issues people deal with daily.
Psychiatrists and therapists are two of the options people looking for support for their mental health have. However, there are critical, sometimes complex differences between the two which not everybody understands.
We’re here to unpack what the differences between psychiatrists and therapists are, including what they are trained to do and what qualifications they require, giving you a better idea of which one is right for you.
What is a psychiatrist?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialise in the area of mental health. They are highly-qualified and typically very experienced professionals, capable of diagnosing and treating a broad range of mental illnesses with the objective of helping people better manage their conditions.
The field of psychiatry is constantly changing and developing, but psychiatrists currently tend to provide medical support to people with recognised mental health conditions including:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
The role of a psychiatrist involves end-to-end care, from initial diagnoses of these (and other) mental health conditions to the production of individualised, tailored treatment plans that may involve medication.
As qualified doctors, they are capable of taking on a professional medical role that includes making formal diagnoses, providing medical advice, and dispensing prescriptions. They will also often work in multi-disciplinary care teams alongside other healthcare professionals like addiction therapists or mental health nurses.
The pathway to becoming a psychiatrist ensures that, upon qualification, these professionals are fully prepared for the challenges of the role. Before qualifying, they must complete a five-year medical degree recognised by the General Medical Council, a two-year foundation programme of general training, three years of core psychiatry training, and three additional years of training in a specialist area such as child and adolescent psychiatry or forensic psychiatry.
Each of these talking therapies functions in a similar way, revolving around one-to-one or group sessions during which a therapist helps people to better understand and cope with the mental problems they’re facing.
Importantly, therapists are typically not medically-trained professionals. This means they’re generally not qualified to provide concrete medical advice or dispense medication.
Some of the titles that fall into the therapist category also aren’t strictly regulated, but certain therapists do require formal training, accreditation, or licences in order to practice. The requirements vary depending on the type of therapist.
Licenced psychotherapists, for example, must have a degree in psychology or a related subject, an accredited postgraduate qualification, and 450 hours of registered practice that is recognised by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)
Unable to dispense medication, therapists instead tend to provide a more informal way for people to deal with their emotions or mental health difficulties. In most cases, this takes the form of regular sessions where issues are talked through.
Differences between psychiatrists and therapists
The key difference between psychiatrists and therapists is in the required qualifications and accreditations of each role. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who simply specialise in mental health. They are fully medically trained and qualified, and can therefore make diagnoses, give evidence-based medical advice, and prescribe medication.
Therapists, on the other hand, are typically limited to talking therapy. They don’t stray into medical discussions and are unable to make diagnoses or write prescriptions. Some therapists, including licenced psychotherapists, will be highly-qualified and accredited, but they are still not considered medical professionals.
Despite their differences, however, psychiatrists and therapists can both play an important role in care plans for people with mental health conditions. A common relationship is that between a psychiatrist and a licenced psychotherapist – the former making a diagnosis and prescribing suitable medication while the latter delivers talking therapy to supplement the medical element of the treatment plan.
Which one to choose
The vast differences in the remit between psychiatrists and therapists means there are few circumstances where you’d have to choose one over the other. Instead, it’s likely that the nature of the mental health issue you’re dealing with will make the decision for you.
If you’re seeking support for a recognised mental health condition such as depression, ADHD, or schizophrenia, a psychiatrist is the only option out of the two for receiving a diagnosis and exploring medication routes.
If you’re not necessarily experiencing a mental health condition, but going through a rough time in your life during which you need support, a therapist may be able to provide it through talking therapy.
It’s important to remember that talking therapy is not a replacement for medical care where required. It should instead be seen as a supplementary service that can potentially offer additional benefits.
If you’re confused about which service you need, seeing a GP can help you to better understand where you should turn for further support.