Dr Heather Dyson
A Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Counsellor walk into a bar...
I often get asked, "What’s the difference between a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a counsellor?"
When you are experiencing depression, anxiety or other difficulties, it’s an important step when you decide to seek help. But how do you navigate your way through all of the different types of mental health professionals? Many people are often put off, or left disheartened because they don’t know what type of support would be best for their unique set of circumstances. The terminology and jargon used by mental health professionals can only make this confusion worse.
With that in mind, I thought I would outline the differences between a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a counsellor in the UK. They all have different roles to play but it’s important to remember that all of these professions have the same goal - to help you navigate your way through any issues you may be experiencing and provide assistance.
What is a psychologist?
The most important thing to remember here is that the term ‘psychologist’ is legally protected. This means that anyone calling themselves a psychologist must have completed official, recognised training and hold certain qualifications. This will usually consist of an undergraduate (or conversion course) in psychology and then a PhD. After qualifying, they will also have to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). This means that you can be assured that a psychologist will have the knowledge base and experience to help with a wide range of difficulties. It also means that they are accountable, and have to adhere to, guidelines laid down by official bodies, such as the HCPC and the British Psychological Society.
A psychologist will work with you to navigate through often difficult emotions. Psychologists will often be trained in different therapeutic approaches, from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to psychodynamic and existential therapies. Counselling Psychologists will be able to help with a range of issues, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, bereavement and many others. It’s important for psychologists to create a safe, supportive environment, in which you can explore what’s troubling you, without feeling any prejudice or judgement. They will listen carefully to your concerns and work alongside you to help you understand where your current ways of thinking and behaving have come from and how you can move forwards.
What is a psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medically-trained doctor that has completed training in psychiatry and psychology. Usually, they will have completed a five year medical degree, followed by two years as a trainee doctor, followed by a six year specialisation in psychiatry. They will often specialise in a particular branch of psychiatry, such as general adult psychiatry, child psychiatry or forensic psychiatry. Their focus is on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health issues.
Psychiatrists will complete an initial assessment and look at the struggles you are currently facing. From that, they will make diagnoses and possibly even prescribe medication. Some provide psychotherapy as well but most work alongside psychologists and together they will formulate a plan for your care. You probably won’t see a psychiatrist as much as you would see a psychologist. You would, most likely, see them every few weeks to discuss any medications you might be taking and if you have any other concerns regarding your treatment.
What is a counsellor?
Unlike psychologists and psychiatrists, the term ‘counsellor’ is not a protected term, so you should always check a professional’s qualifications and skills. There are a multitude of counselling courses available, so it can be confusing to know which ones are valid. A good way to have some peace of mind is by checking to see if they are registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), which is the official, leading body for counselling in the UK. Like other professional bodies, they will have checked each member’s qualifications and will also have a strict ethical code of practice.
Counsellors will usually be trained in one or more of the therapeutic approaches and can offer support for a range of mental health difficulties, such as depression and anxiety.
Ultimately, it’s important to find a mental health professional who you feel comfortable with and who has the requisite skills, training and knowledge to help. You can always contact a few different types of professional before making a final decision, to see whose approach you prefer. Additionally, if you find that, further down the road, you want to try a different approach, most mental health practitioners will be able to talk through your concerns and then refer you onwards.
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