What is a therapist?

Recently, I was prompted to reflect on what exactly a “therapist” is. During our initial intake session, a new client asked me, “So what would I call you, anyway? Are you my therapist, my counselor, or what?” I shared that, though my official job title at my specific organization is “Primary Counselor”, the terms “therapist” and “counselor” are often used interchangeably in the field–and either would be appropriate. Below, I have described several roles in the mental health field.

Therapist or Counselor

These individuals provide therapy in a variety of settings–schools, hospitals, community agencies, and private practices. They can conduct individual, group, couples, and/or family therapy. There are different specialties under this umbrella as well, such as “art therapist” or “marriage counselor,” which frequently require further education and/or certifications.
Job titles: Counselor, Mental Health Counselor, Clinical Mental Health Counselor, Professional Counselor, Therapist, Psychotherapist, etc.
Minimum Education: Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Sciences (M.S.), or Master of Education (M.Ed.) in an area related to mental health, such as counseling, mental health counseling, or counseling psychology. Alternatively, a therapist may have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

Licensure: Varies by state. Check requirements for your state at the American Counseling Association’s website.


Psychologists serve a variety of mental health related roles in many different settings. They may provide therapy, conduct research, teach psychology, or act as consultants–to name a few of their many potential jobs.
Job titles: Psychologist, Counseling Psychologist, Clinical Psychologist, Child Psychologist, etc.
Minimum Education: All psychologists have at least an advanced doctoral degree (Ph.D or Psy.D) in psychology.

Licensure: Varies by state.


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in psychiatry. Some provide psychotherapy, but that’s only part of their job. A psychiatrist’s main responsibilities include diagnosing and treating mental illness. Psychiatrists also prescribe and monitor psychotropic medications. Most psychiatrists work at hospitals, though some are employed in private practice or community settings.
Job titles: Psychiatrist, Clinical Psychiatrist, etc.

Minimum Education: All psychiatrists have graduated from medical school, just like any other medical doctor, and have completed a residency in psychiatry.
Licensure: Psychiatrists must be certified by their state’s medical board and by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Your therapist could fit any of the descriptions listed above–it’s a broad field! Do you have any questions about a therapist’s role in the mental health field? Ask them in the comments!


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