It’s one of the most common inquiries we get here at Nassau Guidance and Counseling: what on Earth is the difference between a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, therapist, and social worker?
It’s easy to get confused. Psychotherapists come from all different educational and theoretical backgrounds, but only a few licenses exist that qualify a professional to be a therapist. In light of a recent New York Times article on the misconceptions regarding psychotherapy and psychiatry [which you can read here], let’s take a look at four of the most common types of psychotherapists.
Psychiatrists: The Medicinal Route
In the New York Times article linked above, Dr. Donald Levin laments the shift from therapy to medication prescribing that has occurred during his lifetime in the field of psychiatry. According to the article, just 11% of psychiatrists offered psychotherapy to all patients - a number cited by the government in 2005, and has likely decreased since. This same article mentions that psychotherapy has recently been found to be equally or more effective than medication alone in treating depression - an important finding for those who suffer from depression, and are only treating it medicinally.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are trained specifically in the field of mental health. However, recent trends have shifted the practice away from psychotherapy toward a medicinally-based approach. After the initial consultation, a typical psychiatric session lasts 15 minutes, in which the psychiatrist checks your symptoms, assesses the effectiveness of your medication, and writes a new prescription. This is widely different from a therapy session, which is typically 45 minutes, and in which no medication is typically prescribed.
Psychotherapy is a general term that refers to the practice of addressing mental health issues by talking to a therapist. It is based on a relationship of communication between the client and therapist. There are many different types of psychotherapy, and more often than not, therapists are trained in multiple methods. This differs greatly from psychiatry, which focuses on the neurochemical treatment of mental health issues.
What’s the Difference?
In short? Not too much.
Under a change in New York State law enacted in 2003*, the therapy practiced by different mental health professionals is considered essentially the same. Thus, a Licensed Psychologist (PhD) can perform the same psychotherapy services as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT.)
The requirements for a therapist in New York State vary upon the license, but there is one universal qualification: all therapists must be State Education Board certified to practice in New York. This is to protect clients from fraud or malpractice. Therapists must pass examinations, be supervised for a certain number of hours, meet graduate-level educational requirements, and keep their license up to date. At Nassau Guidance and Counseling, we require an additional 10 years of post-licensing experience from our 34 different therapists.
The only real difference between therapists is their background and approach. In example, a licensed marriage and family therapist might see things through the lens of family relationships. The specific training of a therapist can vary widely, and most therapists go on to pursue post-licensing education in order to keep up with the most relevant research and practices. Each develops their own unique style of therapy that reflects their education, training in multiple theories of therapy, and personality.
How Do I Know What Kind Of Therapist Is Best For Me?
The best way to find a good therapeutic match is to consider your own personal needs. Ultimately, what ensures a fulfilling experience is how the individual therapist is suited to address your issues, not what kind of licensure the State has issued them. A licensed clinical social worker who is warm, encouraging, and experienced may be well-suited for your marital counseling if his or her personality seems to fit yours well.
Because the psychotherapy offered by all New York State licensed professionals differs only because of the individual styles of the therapists, what is most important is your level of comfort and their personal experience with your issues. It’s not that any one type of therapist is “better” than the others; however, there may be one individual who is better suited to you.
At Nassau Guidance and Counseling, our client care consultants are extensively trained in assessing your needs and finding the therapist who is best matched to your concerns, personality, and availability. Our policy is to set you up with your first appointment within a week of matching you to a therapist who fits your needs. Call us today at (516) 221-9494 for more information.
*NYS Chapter 676, Article 153