Health Agenda

Mental Health

What’s the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist?

Finding the right mental health professional increases the chances of successful therapy.

If you’re concerned about your mental health, finding the right support can be difficult. Which specialist should you see? What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? And what does a counsellor do?

Different mental health professionals have different qualifications, experience and areas of specialty. Finding the right support will help you receive the best care and see the best possible results.

What is a psychologist?

Psychologists are experts in human behaviour who have completed a minimum of six years of training.

“Their focus is on assessment and diagnosis of mental health disorders, and also the delivery of psychological-focused therapies,” says Associate Professor Melissa O’Shea from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who diagnose and treat people experiencing mental illness. They’re the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medication and admit you to hospital if that’s what’s needed.

They can provide strategies and non-medicinal treatment.

What is a counsellor?

Counsellors, like psychologists, offer different types of talking therapy, which is when you talk about your thoughts and feelings. Unlike psychiatry and psychology, counselling isn’t a regulated profession – although most counsellors have qualifications and training. Counsellors often specialise in areas like relationships and family therapy.

Where do I start?

Your GP is the ideal first port of call to assess your needs and help you decide which type of mental health professional is suited to help you. To gain access to Medicare-funded services, your GP will give you a mental health treatment plan and a referral to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

HCF members with psychology cover can claim for necessary ongoing treatment, provided the therapist is an HCF-recognised psychologist treating you as a private patient. However, this doesn't extend to treatment from a psychiatrist as an outpatient. 

If you’re willing to pay the out of pocket, you can also contact a psychologist directly without a referral from your GP.

Neither Medicare nor HCF covers the costs of your sessions with a counsellor, but your GP can still provide a referral to one of these professionals.

Find your ideal mental health specialist

You can be guided by your GP’s suggestion of a specialist or expand your search for a mental health professional.

Ask friends and family for recommendations, search online for experts who work in your area or use services such as The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ Find a Psychiatrist tool or the Australian Psychological Society’s Find a Psychologist database.

“Look at the experience the clinician has because mental health is such a wide field,” says psychologist Melanie Simmons. “There will be people who specialise in whatever problem you may have.”

Assoc Prof O’Shea says the first consultation with a mental health professional – which is usually a broad assessment of your mental health – is a good indicator of what you can expect from an ongoing relationship.

“When you’re seeing a mental health professional for the first time, think about how you feel with them, how the trust is being built, how comfortable you feel to share your experiences with them, and how much you feel engaged in the process,” she says.

Relationships matter

Rochelle, for example, had appointments with six different psychologists before she found her perfect match.

“It’s important to have a good rapport with your mental health professional but finding the right person can be hard,” she says. “My psychologist is very understanding and patient, and we have a very open and honest relationship.”

Importantly, Rochelle says, the close connection the two share helps her feel safe to open up. “I feel so much comfort when I’m speaking to him,” she says.

Just like in Rochelle’s case, finding the right psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor can take time. You might need to see two, three or more people before you find someone you really connect with.

Research suggests that a strong relationship between a client and mental health professional – what’s called the ‘therapeutic alliance’ – is one of the most important predictors of therapy success.

“Therapy can involve talking about very personal feelings and experiences. For this reason, the relationship you have with your therapist is very important,” says Assoc Prof O’Shea.

“There’s a lot of research that tells us the therapeutic alliance may be the most important

factor in terms of what makes therapy effective.

“What we mean by that is the collaboration between the client and the therapist, and the building of trust within that relationship. When that’s built, we know the outcomes are likely to be a lot better.”

Melanie agrees, and says that important ingredients of a strong relationship include feeling comfortable to ask questions and to provide feedback.

Mental health support for eligible members

To make it as easy as possible for members to access the mental wellbeing support they need, HCF has partnered with PSYCH2U, offering eligible HCF members access to online video sessions with a mental health professional.*

Find out more

If you're struggling with depression and/or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words: Angela Tufvesson

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*Must have HCF gold level hospital cover for at least 2 months. Other eligibility criteria apply.