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What your therapist’s title really means

March 1, 2019 • read

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What your therapist’s title really means

As Canadians, we pride ourselves on having a progressive society, but in truth, mental health is still stigmatized. Because of this, many of us who have mental health issues are either unaware of them or reluctant to address them.

We’ll drive to a dermatologist for a skin infection or walk to a gynecologist for uterine problems. But deciding between a psychologist or a psychiatrist can be so frustrating that we give up altogether. There’s so much stigma around asking for help that there’s little clarity around the different types of therapists that even exist. According to popular myth, they all have couches and prescribe strong pills. But that’s simply not true. 

To support openness, it’s crucial that we have open conversations. Let’s start by demystifying some of the titles in the evolving world of psychology to help us figure out who can provide the care we need.

Who are psychotherapists?

Psychotherapists are mental health professionals who have specialized training in talk therapy. This is an all-encompassing term for those who help people deal with stress, anxiety and other emotional problems through therapy. Psychotherapists include psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts. Each one of these has a different degree and focus, so you’ll find more on all three below.

Who are counsellors?

Counsellors provide therapy, counselling or advice in a specific field of focus. They can specialize in different areas like relationships, careers, families, general mental health or education counselling. Typically, people visit counsellors to seek advice, or for help solving problems or making important decisions in life.

Who are psychoanalysts?

Psychoanalysts use a very specific method of treatment and therapy. They focus on alleviating symptoms, but also on the root causes of psychological problems. These are the professionals most often associated with the stereotypical couch scenario, and Freudian model, which involves releasing emotions and free association. Psychoanalysts are unable to do psychological testing and are usually best for treating conditions like childhood trauma.

Who are psychologists?

Psychologists are professionals who study psychology. Most conduct research and have a PHD in psychology. Clinical psychologists, in particular, hold a doctoral degree in psychology — a PsyD. They focus on testing (like IQ testing) and specialized types of therapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for addressing mental health issues. Despite their doctoral degree, they are not medical doctors, and so they’re unable to prescribe medications. If you feel that you have a mental disorder that requires treatment, clinical psychologists are meant for you.

Who are psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists?

Psychiatrists are mental health professionals with a doctorate in medicine (an MD). In addition to providing talk therapy, they can also prescribe medications and usually focus on using both methods of treatment. Similarly, psychopharmacologists specialize in medications for psychological concerns and are considered psychiatric pharmacists.

Who are social workers?

Social Workers design programs and services that help to address the psychological problems of individuals within our society. If they have a private practice, they can also design treatments or develop welfare plans for individuals. They are not involved with any psychological testing however and focus on the social environment as the cause of the individual’s problems. Social workers can have an individual practice or can work in community hospitals or outreach programs, depending on the license they have:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) can practice clinical social work independently or at community hospitals or other programs or organizations.
  • Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSW) can practice clinical social work, but only under a LCSW. They cannot practice independently.

Being a little more educated about different psychological titles can make seeking help a little less intimidating. If you ever feel that you need to visit any of these professionals, hopefully knowing who to see can make the process a little easier.  

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