Psychologist, psychotherapist, psychiatrist; what’s the difference?

Dr Elaine Ryan


If you are considering undertaking talking therapy, you may have already come across all the different therapists. I am often asked to explain the difference in therapist names, and this article summarizes the therapists you may come across.

The most apparent difference in all the titles is in training. After completing an undergraduate degree in psychology, a person has to complete doctoral-level training in order to become a psychologist.

Counsellors and psychotherapists do not have to have an undergraduate degree in psychology and their training can be at diploma or undergraduate level, and some are at Master’s degree level.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who then specialises in psychiatry. Not all psychiatrists offer therapy.


What is a psychologist?

Psychology session

A psychologist is someone who has studied the brain, emotions and behaviour. Psychologists study how you think and interact with people.

A psychologist will have an undergraduate degree in Psychology before embarking on professional training at doctoral level. It is notoriously difficult to get accepted unto professional training programs, and most people end up having at least a Master’s degree and a few years relevant work experience as an assistant psychologist before getting accepted for professional training.

It can confuse, but someone who has a degree in psychology is not a psychologist. An undergraduate degree in psychology gives the person a good understanding of cognitive and social psychology and child development, but a person with just a degree in psychology will not have received formal training in models of therapy and mental health conditions.

To call yourself a psychologist, you shall have undertaken postgraduate training courses that are recognised by a professional body.

Where do they work?

Psychologists work mainly in health care settings, such as the HSE or NHS or in private practice.

How do psychologists help?

Psychologists can help you through talking therapy. As part of their doctoral training, a psychologist will have studied various models of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and have had their clinical practice supervised whilst working within the model.

Psychologists help by undertaking complete assessments of your difficulty and providing not only an explanation for what is happening to you but also provide a treatment plan covering what they recommend you do to feel better.

Psychologists can help with all forms of mental health problems, and also help with lifestyle changes, managing chronic illness, and relationship problems.

What is a counsellor?

A counsellor is someone who has studied at a diploma or degree level. They do not have to have an undergraduate degree in psychology.

According to the IACP, as of 2018 in order to be accredited as a counsellor in Ireland, the person has to have at minimum an undergraduate degree or postgraduate qualification.

Where do counsellors work?

Counsellors can work in universities, private practice and some health care settings working in addiction centres and offering bereavement help or relationship help.

What can they help with?

Counsellors can help you to explore difficulties you may have, and can help with problems such as anxiety and depression.

What is a psychotherapist?

Psychotherapy is another word for talking therapies.

The term ‘psychotherapist’ is not a job title as such. Psychotherapy refers to talking therapies. 

A psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health professional, may be called a psychotherapist, if they had training in psychotherapy. For example, the title of my full doctoral training was in psychotherapeutic and counselling psychology

There are many different approaches in psychotherapy, or talking therapies, which include:

  • cognitive behavioural therapy
  • psychoanalytic therapy

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatric appointment

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialise in mental health. In addition to diagnosis, they can also prescribe and monitor medication.

Where do they work?

Psychiatrists can work in HSE or NHS as part of mental health teams. For example, when I worked in mental health teams in the NHS, psychiatry was part of our multi-disciplinary team.


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