If you are considering mental health support, you may have a few questions about which clinician can help. What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? Should you see a counselor first, or your primary care provider? It is normal to be hesitant to seek help because you are unsure of where to go. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other clinicians provide specialized care and can support you in different ways.
Psychologists Vs. Psychiatrists
Psychologists and psychiatrists often work collaboratively to provide appropriate care. A psychologist may refer you to a psychiatrist for medication support, while a psychiatrist may refer you to a psychologist for additional mental health support.
Psychologists are clinicians who work with individuals to assess and treat mental health conditions.
Psychologists have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree. Psychologists do not have M.D. or equivalent credentials because medical school is not part of their training.
Depending on their training and career path, psychologists may work in a variety or combination of settings (e.g., research, clinical, and academic). Further, experts in psychometric testing services can be found in corporate, academic, legal and many other settings.
Many psychologists administer and/or interpret psychological assessments to gain an understanding of their clients’ cognitive, academic, social-emotional, personality, and neuropsychological functioning (and more/to name a few). They may utilize a variety of measures dependent upon the referral question(s) and the setting in which they work.
Psychologists can work with a range of clients. Most psychologists will focus on several areas of study, and may specialize in working with specific types of disorders or populations. There are many areas of specialization, some of which include mood disorders, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders. Clinical psychologists, for example, may have additional training in severe and chronic mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, personality disorders, and major depressive disorder(MDD).
Psychologists can offer individual counseling, couples and family counseling, or group counseling. Their interventions can take various forms, for example:
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Humanistic therapy
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
- Integrative or holistic therapy (or a combination of different types of therapies)
Psychologists will often meet with clients weekly or biweekly over a period of several months or even years. Intensive treatment plans may require more than one session per week for a shorter time frame.
In most states, psychologists cannot prescribe medications because they do not have medical training. However, as of 2017, psychologists can prescribe medication in five states when they complete additional clinical pharmacology education.
Psychiatrists have graduated from medical school or osteopathy school and have additional post-graduate training with focus on mental health disorders. They have M.D. or equivalent credentials, so they are authorized to prescribe medication and supervise treatment in hospitals and other facilities.
Psychiatrists can provide a mental health diagnosis and ongoing medication management or other treatment options, even on a weekly basis. During the initial evaluation, psychiatrists will review symptoms, mental health and trauma history, and related medical health concerns. You may receive a diagnosis, and discuss medication options. However, medications may not be a part of every patient’s treatment plan.
While adjusting to a new medication(s) or dosage, appointments can be as frequent as every week. During these appointments, your psychiatrist will review medication response and any side effects, and can also provide therapy. Once a successful medication and dosage is established, appointments may be once a month or every few months.
Other Mental Health Clinicians
There are several other mental health clinicians that provide therapy and support.
Psychotherapy refers to a treatment process rooted in talk therapy.
Psychotherapists, colloquially known as therapists, are clinicians with a master’s degree (LMHC, LPC, LCPC, LMFT) , doctorate (PhD, Psy.D), or medical degree (MD or equivalent ), who often focus on chronic and long-term disorders. Psychotherapists usually see individuals consistently over an extended period. Therapy can also resume after a break.
Clinical Social Workers
Social workers resemble psychotherapists in that they provide talk therapy to individuals on a consistent basis, but their interventions take into account the client’s current social and economic conditions.
Social workers’ licenses may vary depending on their state. A Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)has earned a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and work primarily in government entities. A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) has additional credentials that can allow them to work with patients with mental health or emotional concerns.
Counselors (LPCs or LMHCs, depending on the state) treat mental health symptoms by focusing on self-guided solutions and coping skills. They will often see clients once per week for several months and focus mostly on current situations. They help individuals with depression, anxiety, grief, relationship matters and other mental health concerns. Through reflective listening, counselors help their client pinpoint learned thoughts, set goals, and incite behavioral change. Counselors must have at least a master's degree in counseling.
The field of psychoanalysis is rooted in an entirely different theory than those of the prior professions. Based on Freud’s analysis of resistances, psychoanalysis focuses on the role of unconscious factors behind patients’ persistent psychological challenges.
Psychoanalysts are psychotherapists with additional (minimum 5 year) training, specific to this type of treatment.
General Practitioners (GPs), also known as Primary Care Providers (PCPs), are providers who see patients for any medical concerns. They are not psychiatrists, but they can also prescribe medications for mental health concerns.
Cost and Insurance Coverage
Many individual and group insurance companies cover mental health and substance use services. Nonetheless, cost and insurance coverage are extremely variable based on the provider, healthcare system, state of residence and coverage in or out of network. For example, accessing care from an in-network provider may be more affordable than an out-of-network provider.
Colleges with counseling programs may also offer low-cost or free therapy sessions, and telehealth services may be available at a lower cost.
An initial evaluation session with a psychiatrist can cost up to $500. After the initial appointment, follow-up visits can cost an average of around $100 or more per session.
Ongoing sessions with a psychologist can range from $70 to $250 per 50-60 minute session. Additionally, cost may be variable based on a psychologist's training, specialization, location, and/or a patient's insurance coverage.
For instance, professionals in rural areas often charge lower amounts than those in metropolitan areas. Furthermore, people on the east or west coasts can see higher rates than people living in the Midwest.
Other Therapists and Counselors
An initial visit with therapists, psychotherapists and counselors may be at a reduced rate so you can determine if they are a good fit. Ongoing sessions typically cost between $65-$250, but that is determined by where you live, what is covered by your insurance policy, and whether you access care in- or out-of-network. Even in-network providers may require a co-pay. Those vary significantly, from under $10 to $40 or more. You can expect higher costs with well-regarded therapists and/or those working in a highly specialized field.
The fee required to see a social worker depends on the setting which they work (public or private), as well as the payment model of said place.
The only way to get a true estimate is to look into individual mental health professionals and their listed rates. If not publicly available, try calling their office. Then, cross-check with your insurance company. They know your coverage best and can walk you through your anticipated costs.
Who Can Diagnose Mental Health Conditions?
Both psychiatrists and psychologists can diagnose mental health conditions. Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) with a master’s degree are also authorized to diagnose mental health conditions in 32 states.
Psychiatrists can prescribe medications and monitor medication treatment. PCPs and psychologists in 5 states may also prescribe medication for some mental health concerns.
Pharmacogenetics (PGx) can help your prescribing clinician find appropriate medication options, based on your personal genetic profile. The Genomind® Professional PGx Express™ looks at 24 genes related to mental health treatment. It provides guidance across 10+ mental health conditions and 130+ medications to help clinicians determine:
- Which medications may be more or less likely to be effective
- Which medications may be more or less likely to have side effects
- How you metabolize medications for personalized dosing guidance
The Genomind PGx test can be done at a clinician’s office—or from the comfort of your home. It requires a prescription, and Genomind can help connect you with a verified Genomind provider near you. If you are considering medication for a mental health concern, pharmacogenetics can help you and your clinician determine which medication(s) and dosage may be the most appropriate for you.
Tips for Finding a Mental Health Professional
Get a Referral
Psychiatrists usually work from referrals. Make an appointment with your primary care provider and ask for a referral to a psychiatrist in your area.
Other clinicians (e.g. therapists, counselors, etc.) can accept clients without a referral, but you may need a referral from your PCP for insurance purposes.
Some psychiatric clinicians may offer telemedicine services. This online service can make mental health care more accessible for individuals living in rural areas or who have limited mobility. Telemedicine also provides another option for individuals who prefer to stay home due to public health concerns, or who may have underlying health concerns.
Questions To Ask a Psychiatric Professional
During your initial call to their office or first meeting with a mental health professional, you may ask questions to ensure the clinician is a good fit in your unique situation. Questions to ask may include:
- What are their areas of expertise?
- Are they available to speak every week?
- How familiar are they with my symptoms?
- How easy is it to contact them?
- Do they offer telehealth appointments?
- Does my insurance cover their services?
Moving Forward With Your Care
The mental health field has a range of professionals to meet different needs. If you are seeking mental health support, understanding the fundamental differences between psychiatrists ,psychologists and other specialists can help you access care that’s best for you. If you have more questions about seeking mental health support, talk to your primary care provider for further guidance.