Psychologist and psychiatrist: what's the difference?

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Psychologist and psychiatrist: what's the difference?

Updated October 2023 | 4 min read
Expert contributors Associate Professor Melissa O'Shea, Deakin University's School of Psychology; Melanie Simmons, psychologist
Words by Angela Tufvesson

Knowing the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, as well as finding the right mental health professional, increases your chances of successful therapy.

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

Different mental health professionals have different qualifications, experience and areas of specialty. For example, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor and can prescribe medication, whereas a psychologist cannot. 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 does a psychiatrist do?

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 also 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.

What is a therapist?

You may have heard the term therapist as well, but how is a therapist different to a psychologist? Therapy is usually a more general term to describe a lot of mental health talking services, including psychology, counselling and social work.

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 may give you a mental health treatment plan and a referral to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

HCF members with eligible extras cover can now claim on an expanded range of mental health services, including consultations with a psychologist (if you don’t have a Medicare Mental Health Treatment Plan or you’ve used it up), an HCF-approved counsellor and an accredited mental health social worker.

To support members with faster, easier access to qualified mental health professionals, we’re offering a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a psychologist for eligible members* and we also provide cover for eligible online cognitive behavioural therapy courses, delivered by This Way Up^ on selected extras cover.

Finding a mental health professional

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 like 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.

Your relationship with your therapist matters 

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

Everyone’s mental health journey is different, and often finding where to go for support for yourself or your loved ones can be challenging. That’s why we’ve developed a holistic mental health and wellbeing program with access to a range of options for all ages, and the freedom to choose what works for you. We've also got extras that include cover for mental health services. It’s just another way we provide a level of care that’s uncommon.

Where to find more mental health help:

If you're struggling and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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* 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

^ This service is not affiliated or associated with HCF in any way. You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it'll be on the basis that HCF won't be responsible, and you won't hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use.

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