Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Counselor?

What’s the difference between a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Counselor, and Social Worker? Psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior. It’s used in so many fields such as Advertising, Sales, Education, and most notably, in the human services field. But unless you have some form of training, it can be confusing knowing what each role does.  Here is a quick explanation of the different titles in Psychology when it comes to the human services field.


A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor who prescribes  medications for mental health. Only they, or a nurse practitioner, can prescribe medications. They go to medical school and study mental health disorders (diagnosis) and learn which medications are used to treat people. When you see a Psychiatrists for the first time, they’ll give you  an evaluation, which is a bunch of questions about your family history, health history, and symptoms. You then  get a mental health diagnosis and depending on the doctor’s recommendations, they may also give you a script. They should give you a script for blood work to rule out any medical conditions that can affect your emotions and behaviors. For example, if your thyroid levels are too high or too low, you can have symptoms of Depression, mood swings, and Anxiety. Remember, there is no blood test to look for psychological diagnosis.

After that, you typically see them once a month or once every other month, for 15 minutes to see if the medications are decreasing symptoms or if they should adjust the dosage or prescribe something else.

A Psychologist is a doctor because they have a doctorate degree, (PhD or PsyD) but they are not medical doctors so they can not prescribe medications. Psychologist are trained to provide psychotherapy and to administer tests such as IQ tests, personality tests, test for learning disabilities, and other tests.

A lot of Psychologists work in schools, counseling centers, and courts.

Psychotherapist, or Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), have a masters degree, although some Psychologist are also LPCs because they took the state exam. LPC’s study clinical and counseling psychology and are trained to give Psychiatric evaluations, diagnose, and provide therapy. Total training takes at minimum, 8 years. 4 years of college, 2 years of graduate school, and 2 years post masters training. After the 8 years, they can now take the state license exam. Every state is different, so some require more or less time of training.

If you don’t want medications and just want therapy to help you with a problem your facing, such as feeling depressed, anxious, cutting, Eating Disorders, etc. these are the guys you would want to see because all of their training is in the therapy process.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) are the same as LPC, except that their training focuses on Marriage and Families. If you want to see a couples therapist, or want family therapy, these are the guys you want since all of their training is in this area. Although a Psychologist or LPC would also have training in this area because the license board requires it, it’s not specialized training.

Social Workers may provide  counseling, but they are trained in helping people and families function the best way possible in their environment. They’re not too concerned in figuring out why you keep doing what you’re doing and how to stop it. Instead, they’re concerned with your safety and what help do you need right NOW. Social workers can work with Child Services Agencies, at hospitals, prisons, and schools.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) provide psychotherapy. Health insurances will only pay if you’re seeing a licensed clinical social worker, not a non licensed clinical social worker. LCSW’s train in helping people and families to function the best way possible in their environment, plus some courses on the therapy process. LCSW’s license requirements are very similar to LPC’s.


I know it can be confusing but it comes down to the training of the clinician. If you only want medication, you’d see a psychiatrist. If you don’t want medications and want to learn skills to know how to deal with things, you’d see a LPC, LCSW or Psychologist. If you want to go to couples therapy, you would want to see a LMFT.  If you need a test to see if you have a learning disability or custody evaluations, you’d see a Psychologist.


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About Liza J Alvarado, MS, LPC

Liza J Alvarado is a professional counselor in private practice. She serves Adolescents, young adults, and Spanish speaking families in the Bethlehem, PA area.


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