What are the differences between Psychiatry, Psychology, Psychotherapy and Counselling?

I have found in my clinical practice more often than not, clients frequently ask me: “What are the differences between psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy and counselling?” Very good question!


For people who are not in the field, most are quite confused when comes to differentiating between a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychotherapist and a counsellor. Therefore, here is a brief and I hope concise clarification.

There are significant differences between psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy and counselling roles and they tend to deal with different types of problems, although there is considerable overlapping their work. Below is a brief description of each of these careers.

What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry is the study of mental disorders and their diagnosis, management and prevention. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in psychiatry and most postgraduate studies take four years to complete. Psychiatrists are the only professionals who can prescribe medication for clients/patients. They often combine a broad general caseload alongside an area of special expertise and research.

What is psychology?

Psychology is the study of people: how they think, how they act, react and interact. Psychology is concerned with all aspects of behaviour and the thoughts, feelings and motivations underlying such behaviour.

Psychology is a discipline that is firstly concerned with the normal functioning of the mind and has explored areas such as learning, remembering and the normal psychological development of children. Psychology is one of the fastest growing university subjects and is becoming more and more available in schools and colleges.

Psychologists deal in the way the mind works and motivation, and can specialize in various areas such as mental health work and educational and occupational psychology. It is useful to remember that psychologists are not usually medically qualified and only a small proportion of people studying psychology degrees will go on to work with clients/patients.

What is psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is conducted in several different ways, for example, individual, group, couple and family psychotherapy. They are all ways of helping people to overcome stress, emotional problems, relationship problems or troublesome habits.

There are many different approaches in psychotherapy; these are “talking therapies” which include;

Sometimes family or friends intervene and bring the person for diagnosis and treatment.

  • Cognitive behavioural therapies
  • Psychoanalytic therapies
  • Psychodynamic therapies
  • Systemic and family psychotherapy
  • Arts therapies
  • Play therapies
  • Humanistic and integrative psychotherapies
  • Hypno-psychotherapy

A psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist or a counsellor, who has had further specialist training in psychotherapy.

Increasingly, there are a number of psychotherapists who do not have backgrounds in the above fields but who have undertaken in-depth training in this area. Most psychotherapists have several post-graduate diplomas or degrees such as a master’s degree.

However, there are now courses in the UK where psychotherapists can pursue an academic career and study for a specialist doctorate in Psychotherapy (PsyD).

What is counselling?

Counselling and psychotherapy are interchangeable. However, the term counselling is normally referred to short-term goal setting therapy, whereas psychotherapy is normally referred for long-term therapy.

Most counsellors work in schools, colleges and universities. In addition, some counsellors work for large organizations in their occupational health departments where they offer in-house counselling to employees.

Most of the work is short term and solution focused.

To train to become a psychotherapist, most educational training establishments will not take on students who are younger than 28. The premise is that students must have some life experiences to be able to practice as a therapist. So in theory, the older you are, the more life experiences you should have. On the other hand, to train as a psychologist, students can study psychology as soon as they leave secondary school.