Over the years, I have on many occasions encountered people feeling puzzled by these three mental health professionals; all starting with “P”. “What is the difference?” people ask. “Aren’t they really just the same thing?”
Well, no. And yes. Sort of. Isn’t that nice and clear?
In my first blog post I began to explain this. A psychotherapist is someone who practices psychotherapy (aka counselling although some insist that there is a big difference between psychotherapy and counselling… I guess that will be another blog post down the road). You know… a shrink. My movie references are way out of date, but “Good Will Hunting” is a decent portrayal of psychotherapy; and “What About Bob?” is a very funny depiction of it. I’ve never watched it, but I’ve been told the HBO series “In Treatment” does a very good job of representing psychotherapy.
In TV and film, psychotherapy is usually being done by a psychologist or a psychiatrist. However, that does not mean these two professions are the only two capable of practising psychotherapy. They just have names which really look and sound a lot like “psychotherapist.” That, plus the TV thing, are probably why these three titles starting with “P” get mixed up so easily.
In the province of Ontario where I live and work, social workers, nurses and occupational therapists are also legally allowed to practice psychotherapy. And just to keep things from getting too stale, in the last few years a new college got started. Professionals who do not fit any of the categories I’ve already listed – provided they have satisfactory experience and education, as judged by the college – can register with the Ontario College of Psychotherapy, and be legally entitled to practice psychotherapy.
So psychotherapy is an action. It is based on a body of knowledge and carried out with a set of skills; just like a plumber, or a hockey player. But there are a lot of professionals – some of them starting with “P” and some not – capable of carrying out this action. All of them can technically be called psychotherapists.
Back to the ones starting with “P”. A psychologist has a Ph.D. in psychology. They can use “Dr.” before their name, because they have a doctorate; not because they are medical doctors. That’s a lot of years of school. I believe they have the most years of schooling – by a long shot – out of all the various professions listed here. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor. While some doctors specialize in feet, or spleens, or whatever, psychiatrists have specialized in mental health.
Psychiatrists, being doctors, can prescribe medication. Psychologists can’t. At least in Ontario. So far. They were trying to get the ability to prescribe medication, last I heard, but I don’t think they’ve got it yet. But psychologists do have fancy tests, to assess things like intelligence and personality. If I wanted an assessment of myself, I’d go to a psychologist. They’re very thorough people.
Me? I’m a social worker. I can’t prescribe medication. I can’t administer psychological tests (at least the proprietary ones you have to be a psychologist to have access to…)
And that’s just fine with me. I don’t want to prescribe medication, and those tests take hours to complete! I do get to meet with people who are stuck and suffering from things like trauma, anxiety and depression. I get to help out with counselling and psychotherapy. I’m good with that.
- Counseling session: http://clipart-library.com/clipart/172029.htm