Difference between psychologist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist

In common parlance the terms psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and psychotherapist are often mistakenly used as interchangeable. Beyond the terminological confusion, this attitude indicates a lack of knowledge of the skills and roles related to each professional figure.

Let’s try to clarify the differences between psychologist, psychotherapist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst :

The psychologist

The psychologist is not a doctor. He is a health professional with a degree in Psychology. Subsequently, he is enabled to practice the profession by a state examination that allows him to access the registration of the Professional Register . A doctor of psychology who has not completed the regular training (1 year) and has not passed the 4 tests required for the state exam is not in fact a psychologist. In fact, he cannot be enrolled in the Register and cannot exercise the profession deriving from his title.

The profession of the psychologist is regulated by a specific legislation, the code of ethics, which defines its duties and limits. The main purpose of the psychologist ‘s work – different from that of the psychotherapist – is to promote the well-being of the person. This through a focused attention to the functioning of the mind, with its physiological, psychological, personological, relational and environmental components.

In particular, the psychologist works to improve the individual’s ability to understand himself and others and to behave in a conscious, congruous and effective manner. He can work in the clinical field, but also in companies, sports, schools, health, etc. It can carry out interventions aimed at the individual, the group, but also the community. The psychologist’s main intervention tool is the psychological interview . This can be accompanied by the administration of psychological tests with a diagnostic and guidance function.

The psychologist who is not specialized and qualified for psychotherapy CANNOT treat psychological or psychiatric disorders . In the clinical setting, it can diagnose and suggest appropriate treatment paths. It can also offer counseling and psychological support to all those who present a discomfort or a problem that does not represent the symptoms of a psychopathological disorder. In any case, the psychologist, not being a doctor, cannot prescribe drugs .

The psychotherapist

The psychotherapy is a clinical tool that allows you to treat, through non-pharmacological tools, psychopathological disorders. Italian law provides that graduates in psychology or medicine who have acquired specific post- graduate training may be authorized to practice psychotherapy . This includes a course, at least four years , at university specialization schools or those recognized by the MIUR according to current legislation.

That of “psychotherapist” is therefore an additional legal title compared to that of psychologist or doctor, which guarantees this training. In fact, this title derives from a 4-year course of post-graduate specialization. This also includes ongoing practical training and supervision by experienced psychotherapists.

There are many approaches in psychotherapy , which involve quite different theories and methods. From traditional psychoanalysis, to systemic family therapy, to the most modern cognitive behavioral therapy . This is currently the most widespread in the Western world because it is the only one to have a lot of scientific research to support its effectiveness.

The psychotherapist – unlike the psychologist – is therefore the professional indicated in the treatment of psychopathological disorders.

However, the title of psychotherapist does not qualify for the prescription of drugs, if the clinician is a psychologist and not a doctor.

The psychoanalyst

Sometimes a further terminological difficulty leads the “non-experts” to confuse the previous titles with the psychoanalyst (or psychoanalyst). In common parlance, in fact, the term psychoanalyst (or analyst) is erroneously used to indicate anyone who practices a psychotherapeutic activity.

The psychoanalyst, on the other hand, is a psychotherapist who exercises his own clinical practice based on a precise reference approach (precisely the psychoanalytic ones). Psychoanalysis has its roots in Freudian theory and differs enormously from other forms of psychotherapy (see cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, etc.). For example, by setting rules (frequency and duration of sessions, therapist-patient interaction modalities) and by intervention strategies.

The psychiatrist

In the Italian system, the psychiatrist is a graduate in medicine and surgery with a specialization in psychiatry. So he is first of all a doctor: he can prescribe generic drugs and / or psychotropic drugs and request and evaluate clinical tests.

Psychiatry is the specialized branch of medicine that deals with the study, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of mental disorders and pathological behaviors. The psychiatrist is naturally able to make a diagnosis regarding all psychopathological disorders . It evaluates the symptoms and the clinical course and proposes a cure that can be directed towards a pharmacological and / or psychotherapeutic intervention.

The psychiatrist, as a doctor, can also have psychotherapeutic training. In this case he will have the additional title psychiatrist and psychotherapist . Italian law allows psychiatrists to have the title of psychotherapist upon simple request to the professional association. In fact, this does not guarantee, as it is for psychologists, that the psychiatrist-psychotherapist has attended a four-year specialization school in psychotherapy. The psychiatrist is free to evaluate, in science and conscience, if and which training path to take.

Differences between psychologist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist

Psychologist Psychiatrist
Master’s degree in psychology and professional qualification Degree in medicine and post-graduate specialization in psychiatry
Enrollment in the Regional Order of Psychologists Enrollment in the Provincial Order of Doctors
He cannot prescribe drugs He can prescribe drugs
It deals with the assessment of needs and the promotion of well-being in psychological terms It deals with the treatment of mental disorders in biological-organic terms
Psychologist-psychotherapist Psychiatrist-psychotherapist
He attended a four-year university specialization school or recognized by the MIUR and obtained the relative diploma He can be trained as he sees fit in psychotherapy, being able to have the title of right
It deals with the treatment of psychopathological disorders through the clinical interview and other non-pharmacological tools It deals with the treatment of psychopathological disorders both through psychotropic drugs and through the clinical interview and other non-pharmacological tools
The methods of intervention, the tools used, the duration of the therapy depend on the approach used by the individual psychotherapist The methods of intervention, the tools used, the duration of the therapy depend on the approach used by the individual psychotherapist

Who to contact when we have psychological distress

In the presence of a subjective discomfort that does not involve a real symptomatology, it may be useful to initially contact the psychologist with whom to evaluate the nature of the problem presented. We will thus be able to find valuable information on the advisability or not of a psychological consultation , a real psychotherapy and / or psychiatric consultation . The latter two are required when the discomfort is configured as a diagnosable psychic disorder, with more or less severe symptoms.

When a mental disorder negatively affects a person’s functioning, for example at a relational, social or occupational level, the intervention of a psychiatrist can help. The setting of a pharmacological treatment can in fact be very useful both to alleviate the degree of suffering and to re-establish the necessary and sufficient conditions for psychotherapeutic work.

Similarly, the intervention of the psychotherapist aims to reduce the patient’s suffering by acting on the psychic and behavioral mechanisms underlying the problem. Psychiatrist and psychotherapist therefore work on different sides of the same coin, psychic discomfort, each with their own skills. With a view to integrating mind and body, even better if psychiatrist and psychotherapist work in close collaboration. One is concerned with restoring physiological balance, the other with restoring psychological balance.


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