What's the difference between a Counsellor, a Psychologist, and a Psychiatrist?

Alexandra-Stewart-Therapy-Vancouver

This is a question I’m asked a lot in my practice and in everyday life.  Quite often people use the terms counsellor and psychologist interchangeably, or psychologist and psychiatrist interchangeably.  

Quite frequently I’m addressed as Dr. Stewart - which to be honest sounds pretty good, however, those who have their doctorate and who have been through the grueling years of a PhD or MD may not appreciate that...

These 3 mental health specialists are the most sought out when it comes to treatment for mental health concerns. So if you’re considering getting treatment, or are supporting a loved one, it can be helpful to know which professional to reach out to!

The greatest differences among these professions are in the amount of schooling involved and what these healthcare professionals are qualified to do.

REGISTERED/CERTIFIED COUNSELLORS:

  • Will have a master’s degree (MA, MEd, MC)

  • “Counsellor” is not a protected title in BC (technically anyone can call themselves a counsellor or therapist). In BC, a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) or Certified Clinical Counsellor (CCC) needs to hold a master’s degree, has to meet specific eligibility criteria, and has to undergo specific supervision and clinical hour requirements to become registered.

  • Make sure to do your homework and ask your counsellor about their credentials!

  • Are qualified to evaluate and treat mental health concerns and diagnoses. 

    • Counsellors provide psychotherapy. Approaches vary and most counsellors should provide empirically-supported therapeutic approaches (meaning research has shown this approach to be effective).

  • Typical sessions are one hour in length.

  • To learn more about what therapy with a counsellor is like, click here.

PSYCHOLOGISTS:

  • Will typically have a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD),

    • However, some provinces (e.g. Alberta & Saskatchewan) only require psychologists to have a masters degree and to have passed a qualifying exam with a specific (and very high) amount of supervised clinical counselling hours.  

  • Are qualified to evaluate and treat mental health concerns and diagnoses.

    • Psychologists provide psychotherapy.  Just like counselling, approaches can vary and most therapy should be empirically-supported.

  • Can provide assessments and diagnose mental disorders.  

  • They are not able to prescribe medications.

  • Typical sessions are one hour in length.  

PSYCHIATRISTS:

  • Are medical doctors (MD)

  • Are qualified to evaluate and treat mental health concerns and diagnoses

  • Are qualified to assess, diagnose, and prescribe medication.

    • Most psychiatrists will choose to treat mental health diagnoses with psychotropic medications.

    • However, contrary to popular belief, there are psychiatrists who use psychotherapy as a treatment option.

    • If you have a preference to not use medication as a form of treatment, speak up and let your psychiatrist know. If they only provide medication and not psychotherapy, ask them (or your family doctor) to refer you to someone who can.

  • A typical intake session can be around an hour to 90 minutes.  Follow-up appointments tend to be much shorter in length.

 
Alexandra Stewart Vancouver Counselling
 

Hopefully this has brought more clarity to the differences and similarities between the most commonly sought out mental health professionals.  Here are some final tips:

  • Get clear on what your intentions are for seeking treatment, this will help in making a choice about who to see.

(e.g. Do you want a formal diagnosis? Do you think you want medication? Do you want to see someone for ongoing therapeutic counselling?)

  • Ask about their credentials and qualifications.

  • You can see more than 1 mental health professional at a time, depending on your needs.

  • Shop around to find a mental health professional that fits best for you!