Differences between a Psychologist and a Therapist (Counselor/ Social Worker)

People who seek therapy from mental health professionals often get confused about the difference between psychologists and therapists. Indeed, if you aren’t aware of the specialization and qualifications of these psychologists, counselors, or social workers, you might find it hard to decide on where to receive mental health treatment.

The reason is that counselors, therapists, social workers, and psychologists all offer specific types of therapy, but they have different education, experience, and training. Consequently, the services provided by each of these professionals differ to some degree, and based on your problem, chances are that they will base the process of therapy on different approaches. Still, each of them works in the field of human services and aims to help individuals improve their quality of life.

So, in this article, we will cover the difference between a psychologist and a therapist, discuss the professions of a psychologist, counselor, and social worker separately, and see how to choose the right type of mental health professional.

What Do Psychologists Do?

The American Psychological Association defines psychology as the discipline that studies the human mind and behavior. Psychologists examine human experiences and focus on various aspects of human lives, from child development to brain functions. Accordingly, psychologists are mental health professionals who hold a Ph.D. in clinical psychology or related fields. They have the qualification to assess individuals’ mental health conditions, identify their problems, diagnose and develop a treatment plan based on the strategies and techniques they learned during their studies.

For instance, psychologists who have a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and hold a license to provide therapy may specialize in certain forms of psychotherapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), humanistic therapy, psychodynamic therapy, etc.

However, not all psychologists conduct therapies. Instead, after receiving their doctoral degree, they can also continue working as researchers and conduct scientific studies to study human behavior, brain functions, or social issues. Generally, psychologists specialize in the following fields:

  • Developmental field – Developmental psychologists focus on human growth and development over the lifespan. They study the development of mental structures from infancy to old age.
  • Cognitive field – Cognitive psychologists study how people perceive, store, and process information and the ways they remember, learn, and think. Cognitive psychologists develop strategies to help people who struggle with difficulties in cognitive processes such as memory, attention, or learning.
  • Social field – Social psychologists study social and environmental factors that affect human behavior. They focus on our behavior in groups, edamame the development of social identity, and understand the role of social interactions in the way we think, feel, and act.

Keep in mind that even after a psychologist gets their Ph.D., they have to attain a license from the licensure boards of their state.

What Do Counselors Do?

Counselors help people with various mental health issues improve their emotional and behavioral conditions. They aim to provide emotional and psychological support and conduct therapies to aid people in attaining better psychological well-being. Generally, they work in a wide range of areas, including schools, hospitals, colleges, hospitals, and mental health facilities. Besides, they are often involved in a group outpatient practice such as Health for Life Counseling or a private practice.

Therefore, just like psychologists, counselors can conduct therapies and offer treatment services for a wide range of mental health disorders and issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavior problems, or substance addiction. They aim to help people overcome stress, anxiety, and difficulties and develop healthy coping strategies to adapt to their social environment.

Unlike psychologists, a Ph.D. isn’t a necessity for counselors. Instead, they have to earn a Master of Arts in Counseling, and afterward, they have to continue gaining post-graduate experience and undergo specific hours of clinical work in order to qualify for the license.

Counselors can have several different career paths. In particular, they can specialize in individual counseling, group counseling, couple or family counseling, trauma-informed counseling, etc. In each case, they help patients identify their problems and develop specific plans for their treatment. Besides, they constantly conduct research and stay up to date with the latest innovations in the industry.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers aim to help people function better in their own environments. In fact, social workers focus on marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable individuals and communities to help them integrate into society. Still, similar to counselors and psychologists, they work in the fields of child welfare, the elderly, substance abuse, schools, mental health facilities, and more. Besides, social workers use similar techniques to psychologists and counselors, and as a result, social work is considered an interdisciplinary field. Indeed, social workers often work in interdisciplinary teams with mental health professionals in order to increase the likelihood of improvements in individuals’ quality of life.

Other than integrating the elements of counseling and psychology, social workers also focus on helping vulnerable communities and groups and base their service on case management and systematic policy change. As a result, they tend to connect their clients with federal or state resources to improve their everyday lives and functioning.

Furthermore, social workers hold a Master’s degree in social work and two years of practice. Only afterward are they eligible to pass the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW or LMSW-C) exam. After getting a license from their state, they are allowed to provide individual or group therapies. Many social workers decide to become a therapist in a group practice or private practice such as Health for Life Counseling.

Differences in Degrees

As we already pointed out, one of the main differences between psychologists, social workers, and counselors is that they hold different types of degrees and licenses. Let’s compare the degree requirements for these three types of mental health professionals.

  • Psychologists – Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in the field of psychology. Psychologists focus on treating underlying emotional and mental health problems and conducting research. Providing therapy also requires a specific license.
  • Counselors and Therapists – Master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) in counseling psychology or a related field. Working as a mental health practitioner requires obtaining a license such as:
    • LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)
    • LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist)
    • LCADAC (Licensed Clinical Alcohol & Drug Abuse Counselor) etc.,

Licensed counselors focus on helping clients develop coping skills to overcome their current issues and avoid future difficulties.

  • Social Workers – Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW). Social workers identify the basic problems of their clients and use community resources to help them deal with their problems. They require licenses, such as
    • LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker)
    • LICSW (Licensed Independent Social Workers)
    • LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) or LMSW in Michigan

Psychologists vs Therapists – Which One To Choose?

A number of studies prove the effectiveness of both psychological and counseling treatments (e.g., Linde et al., 2015; Baker et al., 2021; Baskin et al., 2010; Bardauskiene & Pivoriene, 2018). However, all of these professions are significantly related as they emphasize mental health treatments. Still, different types of mental health issues require different types of professionals.

It really comes down to what the individual Psychologist, Therapist, Counselor, or Social Worker offers. Just because someone has a degree and a state license doesn’t necessarily mean they are a good healer. It is of the utmost importance that you research who you want to work with based on their specialties. Then, it is advised that you make a call and find out if you and this therapist are a good fit to work together in terms of personality. Moreover, sometimes working with a team of various professionals is the most efficient way to improve your condition.

So, if you’re worried about your mental health condition and considering getting help from mental health professionals, reach out to our team of counselors and therapists at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids. We’ll help you identify the issues and direct you to the right therapist based on your situation.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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