Psychiatrist or psychologist? Therapist, counselor, or coach?

Your car is sputtering around – not getting up to the same speeds it used to. It makes a squeaking noise every time you make a sharp turn and sometimes the steering wheel shakes when you accelerate.

You try to ignore it to see if it’ll get better on it’s own, but the issues get worse and worse.

How long would it take you to drive it into a shop? Would you have anxiety letting a professional diagnose the problem? Would you hesitate to mention your car troubles with friends or family?

Think of your mental health as that car. Our thoughts, personalities, and beliefs drive us through life and affect what we achieve and how we interact with everyone around us.

When your emotions or beliefs start to negatively impact your daily life – it might be good to check in with a professional.

But who do you go to? What’s a psychiatrist? Is that the same as a counselor or life coach? Do all psychologists make you lay on a couch and talk about your past?


The familiar image of the Freud style therapy session!

When picking a mental health professional – there’s no one size fits all approach. The type of professional that works best for you can depend on your specific needs and experience.

Psychiatrists are doctoral level practitioners. They are medical doctors (M.D.) and they can prescribe medication to help minimize and control unwanted mental symptoms. Their treatment plans usually involve long-term assessment and reassessment of how patients adjust to medication.

Psychologists are doctoral level practitioners (Ph.D. or Psy.D.).  Psychologists can work in a wide range of fields. When providing mental health services they focus on correctly diagnosing disorders, understanding behaviors and their triggers, and minimizing negative symptoms.

Therapists are master’s level health professions with additional licensing in their given specialty. Therapists can specialize in substance abuse, sexual trauma, children and adolescence issues, family or marital therapy, etc. They can focus on smaller behavior goals or delve into deeper issues for longer treatment plans.

Counselors and/or life coaches can be licensed or unlicensed; the use of these terms is not regulated in the U.S. That doesn’t mean counselors or coaches are poor quality – they could be a great fit for you! Typically counselors and coaches have licensing and training in social work, psychology, and/or health. They may have a master’s or bachelor’s degree. They usually work alongside a psychologist/psychiatrist and can be great in helping you achieve concrete goals like stress management or anger management. Be mindful when choosing because there is no governing body that controls who calls themselves a counselor or coach.

So now that you know the different types of professionals, what sort of therapy is best for you?

Counseling is usually focused on shorter term goals. For example, as a counselor I may help a client reach a goal of reducing stress eating episodes. This would involve helping them understand the source of their stress eating – what is causing the stress? Are they eating junk because they don’t know it’s bad for them? I may educate them about nutrition and what bad food does to their body. Their homework might be to write a list of things they like about themselves and place it on their fridge to look at before they reach for foods that will harm their health. Together we’ll determine “triggers” (things that compel the unwanted behavior) like watching too much TV or having bad day at work. I’ll go grocery shopping with them and help them find healthy foods to snack on when the urge kicks in. We will clean the kitchen together of unhealthy foods, when they are ready. Their stress eating can involve larger issues like anxiety, self esteem, and depression so we address those as they surface. But I am more focused on helping them change the unwanted behavior. I cannot diagnose any mental illness or disorder.

Psychotherapy is more long term and focuses on a wider range of issues, sometimes more severe. A psychotherapy plan can cover helping someone feel better equipped to handle ALL stresses (grief, rejection, physical pain) as well as recognize behavioral patterns that prevent them from reaching their personal goals. Sessions may focus on enriching relationships by managing negative thinking, reducing feelings of low self-esteem, and ending self-isolating behaviors. A psychotherapist can help someone who has experienced childhood trauma and abuse recognize (and change) patterns in their adult relationships that attract more trauma and abuse. Psychotherapists like Psychiatrists and Psychologists can officially diagnose disorders like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

These branches can be broken into dozens of smaller techniques. Some people feel their symptoms are manageable with talk therapy – sometimes it takes talking and medication to feel your best. Sometimes you may just need a life coach or counselor to get you out of a specific rut in life.

Remember: the road to becoming your best self doesn’t have to be lonely. There are plenty of people to love and support you!

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