Most people have heard of psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists – but it is less common to understand the real differences between these three types of individuals.
Consider this your quick and dirty guide to each of these focus areas, how they work, and how they can help you through recovery.
One of the key elements of the recovery process, and something that the vast majority of treatment programs focus on, is the opportunity to participate in one-on-one counseling sessions. But are these sessions with a therapist? A psychiatrist? Neither? The difference may not be as straightforward as you would think, since there is at least some overlap with all three of these focus areas and professions.
“Psychiatry and psychology are overlapping professions. Practitioners in both – psychiatrists and psychologists – are mental health professionals. Their area of expertise is the mind – and the way it affects behavior and well-being. Both are committed to helping people stay mentally well.”
“Our inpatient addiction recovery facility has psychiatrists and therapists on staff. Take a look at our residential program.”
While there are several key differences between psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists, they all ultimately have the same purpose in their line of work: to help those struggling with a mental disorder (such as addiction) identify the effects that it has on daily life and to overcome those issues. This is what is known as behavioral therapy, and is one of the main principles of drug and alcohol addiction treatment.
All three of these positions related to behavioral therapy have at least the following traits in common:
- They are there to provide guidance and support to patients
- They are highly trained in their field, with at least a master’s degree or certificate and in some cases a PhD
- They specialize in addressing the challenges and issues associated with mental disorders
- They focus on how the brain processes feelings, emotions and thoughts
- They help patients and clients make healthy decisions despite the challenges that a mental disorder presents
With that, you should have an idea of what the overarching purpose of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists is, since all three have the responsibility to help patients. But what are the real differences between the three?
What Does a Psychologist Do?
People commonly use psychologists and psychiatrists to mean the same profession. They are actually very different.
According to Wikipedia, a psychologist is, “…a mental health professional who evaluates and studies behavior and mental processes.” Psychologists must complete a doctoral degree in order to function in this role professionally. There are a lot of different types of psychologists. They work in all different fields to provide many services. They can work in education, within the community or within organizations. They can also provide addiction treatment.
In the case of addiction treatment, psychologists are experts in human behavior. They understand why people behave, think and feel the way that they do. In studying these factors on an individual basis, they can understand addictions on a personal level. They are excellent at drawing correlations between substance abuse and root causes.
What’s more, psychologists are very good at helping people change their behaviors. By using the right kind of therapy, they’re often able to assist with making changes. Above all, those who work in this profession are focused in helping people overcome their addictions. They use scientific and evidence-based strategies to accomplish their goals in treating their patients.
Some of the different types of therapy psychologists regularly use include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Dynamic interpersonal therapy
- Psychoanalytic therapy
- Existential therapy
- Solution-focused brief therapy
While not every type of therapy is appropriate for everyone, cognitive behavioral therapy is very popular. It has been shown to be very helpful for people battling addictions. Psychologists will regularly use a different combination of therapies to help their patients.
How Psychologists Compare to Psychiatrists and Therapists
Psychologists are trained to focus on how mental processes coincide with behaviors, emotions, reactions and, in cases of addiction or trauma, trigger events or situations. With this training, psychologists tend to examine behavior closely as a kind of symptom of underlying mental processes. Most psychologists apply specific psychological tests to determine the status of a mental disorder, to make a diagnosis, and to inform treatment. Psychologists are not medical doctors – except for in a few states, they cannot prescribe medication for certain mental health conditions, such as addiction or depression.
Instead, those trained in psychology in assess the behaviors and thought processes of clients, and make an informed diagnosis based on their observations. Psychologists then work through this diagnosis with clients in order to help them make healthy decisions, clarify how they feel, and move forward. Psychologists often work closely with psychiatrists to give clients a holistic sense of support, and in some states are allowed to prescribe medication if they are certified in psychopharmacology.
What Does a Psychiatrist Do?
A psychiatrist is very similar to a psychologist, but with one main distinction – they can prescribe medications. They specialize in psychiatry, which is a branch of medicine devoted to mental health disorders. They are medical doctors who can evaluate their patients based on a number of different factors. For instance, they are able to determine if a patient’s issues stem from a medical problem. They can also tell if a specific issue is a combination of medical and mental health conditions.
Psychiatrists have a lot of tools at their disposal for diagnostic purposes. They can do so much more than just talk with their patients. They can also:
- Order blood work
- Conduct a physical examination
- Order brain imaging tests (such as CT scans)
- Order MRIs
- Test for other physical abnormalities through medical testing
Psychiatrists tend to have sub-specialties. These are certain areas where they focus most of their time. In our case, our psychiatrists focus mainly on addiction and mental health issues that often accompany that.
Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists have to complete a great deal of education to get their degrees. They must graduate from medical school and have a year of medical internship. After that, they must complete 3 years of residency in the mental health field. During this time, they are assessing and treating different mental health conditions and disorders.
Psychiatrists also perform psychotherapy for their patients. This involves talking with them about their problems. However, they tend to take a different approach because of their background in medicine.
Psychiatrists understand biology and neurochemistry. They’re always looking for a physical reason behind a mental health condition. In many ways, this is a benefit to the patient. Without seeing a psychiatrist, certain medical problems could potentially go undiagnosed.
When it comes to psychiatrists vs. psychologists, both are excellent doctors. However, many people prefer to see a psychiatrist. There are some psychiatrists who may evaluate a patient first, and then refer to psychologists. However, this is only done when it is certain that there are no medical issues that need addressing.
How Psychiatrists Compare to Psychologists and Therapists
While psychologists work primarily with how behavior and emotions interact, psychiatrists are medically trained to examine these behaviors and emotions at a deeper, biological level. Most psychiatrists are trained to engage in psychotherapeutic practices, like psychologists and therapists, but also focus on how various emotions and behaviors can be addressed with medical intervention.
In addition to behavioral strategies, a psychiatrist will address the physical symptoms that often coincide with psychiatric symptoms such as high blood pressure, sleep patterns, and liver functioning. This is particular they case if patients have had prolonged addiction or co-occurring disorders.
In short, a psychiatrist is a specific kind of medical doctor who focuses on both diagnosing and treating mental disorders.
What Does a Therapist Do?
Some people think of therapists as people who are trained to listen. While that may be a fairly comforting thought, therapy is about so much more than this. There are all different types of therapy. Someone who is a therapist will often employ many different methods while working with a patient. It’s very much like talking with a friend who understands your situation and always knows the right away to help you.
Therapists are very helpful at assisting people with maneuvering through the bumps in life. They can see their patients for only a few weeks, or for much longer. Some people continue to go to talk with their therapists for years. This is because it’s helpful to have someone who is always ready to listen to your problems and issues.
Therapist can use their skills in a number of different ways. Probably the way most people are familiar with is through individual therapy sessions. This type of treatment can be for people don’t feel comfortable talking in front of a group. However, in an addiction treatment setting, individual therapy is vital. It is during this time that the therapist is able to help the patient understand the cause of the addiction.
These professionals may also lead and participate in other forms of treatment, including:
- Leading groups in a group therapy setting
- Working with families
- Leading dramatherapy groups
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
- Psychosexual therapy
Therapists enter this profession because they want to help people recover. In many ways, those who work in an addiction treatment setting have challenging jobs. Not only do they work to help people recover from addictions, but they also identify underlying issues. Once they do, they’re highly skilled in providing the right type of treatment. Their work is very rewarding, and extremely beneficial for their patients.
How Therapists Compare to Psychiatrists and Psychologists
When you engage in one-on-one counseling sessions during your recovery process, this will be with a therapist. A therapist can include psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as individuals with other certifications and focus areas, such as life coaches, social workers, and marriage counselors.
‘Therapist’ is an umbrella term, including individuals with a graduate degree, a PhD, and even certificates in specialized fields like family counseling, clinical psychology, substance abuse and social work. With their psychological training in these specialized areas, therapists are there to help you identify how life experiences (including drug or alcohol addiction) have contributed to negative life outcomes, and work with you in developing healthy coping mechanisms to address these issues moving forward. There is no one approach to therapy. Instead, you will work with your therapist in developing successful strategies for managing addiction and behaviors.
Therapy During Addiction Recovery
Sometimes people wrongly assume that if they can stop using drugs or alcohol, their lives will improve. Even though they do need to stop using, addictions go so much deeper than that. It’s so important to get to the reason behind the addiction. If the root cause is not discovered and treated, recovery really isn’t possible.
Because of this, therapy during addiction recovery is so crucial. Without it, patients are very likely to relapse back into their addictions. Whether a patient is seeing a therapist, psychologist or a psychiatrist, their goal is the same. They need to determine what it was that caused the addiction to take place.
Addictions can be caused by a number of different issues. For instance, both drug addiction and alcoholism can be genetic. However, there are usually environmental factors at play as well. Some examples of what may lead to addictions include:
- Chronic stress
- Problems within the family or relationships
- Work-related problems
- For young people, issues in school
- Co-occurring disorders
Quite often, co-occurring disorders are at the heart of addictions. These are mental health conditions that frequently go untreated. People will use substances as a way to self-medicate them. Occasionally, co-occurring disorders will begin after the addiction begins. However, this isn’t nearly as common.
Counseling during addiction treatment helps patients get to the heart of these and other issues. By learning what caused their addictions, they can take the necessary steps to get treated. This increases their chances of long-term success.
Therapy After Rehab
Sometimes people use the word “recovery” as though it’s a goal to be reached. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Recovery is important, but addicts aren’t really ever considered to be recovered. Once someone has an addiction, they will always have the tendency to return to it. In this way, the disease of addiction is just like many other diseases.
Just like other diseases need ongoing treatment, addiction does as well. Addicts and alcoholics need to be sure that they are continuing to get help, even after rehab is over. This can be pretty disheartening to someone who was looking forward to a full recovery. Perhaps you feel disappointed in this notion as well.
Even though you can’t ever be “recovered,” that doesn’t mean you have to remain in the active addiction. You don’t. Millions of people all around the world have proven that it is possible to remain in recovery long-term. However, research has shown time and time again that the best way to accomplish this is through ongoing therapy.
Going to therapy after rehab can be done in a few different ways. You may choose to make an appointment with a therapist who specializes in treating addictions. You could opt for an outpatient rehab program. You could also continue to go to group therapy by joining Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.
No matter what you decide to do, please don’t take this lightly. You need ongoing care in order for your recovery to continue to be successful. The good news is that you won’t always need a high level of care. You may in the beginning, just as most people do. A step-down approach may be recommended for you as you continue in your recovery journey. This allows you to adapt and reach smaller goals that you set for yourself.
Continued Addiction Recovery Through Counseling
One-on-one counseling is a crucial element of any good addiction treatment program. Individual therapy during drug and alcohol rehab goes beyond the stereotypical image of a couch and the perennially soft request to, ‘tell me how you feel.’
Counseling sessions during the recovery process go well beyond this generality, instead focusing on the problem areas that addiction has created in your life and in turn creating coping strategies to deal with them. In some cases, particularly in cases where addiction co-occurs with other mental disorders, drug and alcohol rehab programs include medical and psychiatric services as an integral part of treatment. Whether you participate in talk therapy in a group setting or cognitive behavioral therapy with a trained psychologist, successfully overcoming addiction requires help. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists all can help you through this process.
If you have any further questions about the real differences between these psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists – or a story to share – feel free to leave a comment in the section below.
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