What's the Difference?
(Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Psychiatrist, or Counsellor)?
Understanding the differences between the various types of mental health professional in Australia can be difficult; even more so if you were to do an internet search and look at overseas sites where the rules and use of terminology might be subtly different. Even trickier than understanding the roles, is understanding what each mental health professional might actually do during sessions.
I am going to try and demystify this area a little and explain a few differences and areas of similarity. Hopefully you can then feel a bit more comfortable about who you might want to see. It's important to read the pages about “Selecting a Therapist” and “What Works” in conjunction with this page.
A psychologist is a university trained health professional who will have completed a 4 year undergraduate degree in psychology. In addition they will have undertaken one (or more) of the following:
- A two year internship to supplement their formal training;
- A 1 year post-graduate qualification plus 1 year internship; or
- A 2 year Master's degree or 3 year Doctoral degree.
To be registered as a clinical psychologist, the health professional must have completed a Master's or Doctoral degree plus a required period of supervised practice.
Psychology training in Australia usually focusses on Mental Health skills training and in particular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approaches. However many psychologists extend their training and experience to utilise additional approaches such as psychodynamic work and integrated well-being approaches.
Psychology is regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA).
A psychotherapist usually has, as a minimum, an undergraduate degree in a health related area plus additional specialist training in psychotherapy, typically 3 to 4 years. Additionally most psychotherapists undergo a period of personal psychotherapy to ensure they have suitable levels of self-awareness.
Psychotherapy is a specialisation for working in depth with people who are grappling with a range of personal and well-being issues including diagnosed mental health conditions. Psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors can each, via different pathways, train to be psychotherapists.
Psychotherapists focus on assisting their clients to explore and understand aspects of themselves and their experience. They assist their clients to understand how past experiences influence and shape their current responses to life events. The focus is on the here and now response, the past simply provides the platform for understanding.
Psychotherapy is related to its cousin, psychoanalysis, but is informed by modern interpersonal and relational models of working with clients. Psychotherapists draw from modern neurobiology and a range of evidenced based methods of working.
Unfortunately, in Australia, psychotherapy continues to be self-regulated. I am of the firm belief that all psychotherapists should be regulated like other health professionals. In the meantime ensure that your psychotherapist has suitable training and experience and is a member of an appropriate professional association.
A Psychiatrist is a medically trained doctor with extensive additional training leading to a specialisation in psychiatry. Typically it takes 11 years to complete training to be a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists specialise in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. They have the training to identify complex mental health issues and are able to prescribe medication for treatment.
While some psychiatrists also undertake psychotherapy with their patients, many psychiatrists focus on diagnosis and maintaining medication of conditions and prefer to refer patients to other mental health professionals (psychologists, psychotherapists, or counsellors) for ongoing regular support.
You normally need a General Practitioner (GP) referral to see a psychiatrist.
Psychiatry is regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA).
Training to be a counsellor can vary from a short correspondence course through to a university undergraduate or post-graduate degree. Depending on their training and experience, counsellors may work in areas similar to those undertaken by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists. However, counselling generally focuses on short-term solution focussed strategies for dealing with specific life events such as bereavement, relationship therapy, domestic violence and similar issues.
Both psychologists and psychotherapists have the skills and experience to provide counselling approaches as appropriate to a particular client's needs.
Unfortunately, in Australia, counselling continues to be self-regulated. I am of the firm belief that all counsellors should be regulated like other health professionals. In the meantime ensure that your counsellor has suitable training and experience and is a member of an appropriate professional association.