A psychologist is a professional trained in psychology, the study of human behavior. They work in a multitude of settings, including private practices and other medical settings, schools, clinics, forensic labs, and governmental settings.
They may work directly with people to support behavior change (clinical psychologists) or study behavior but don’t work directly with individuals or provide tailored interventions (nonclinical or applied psychologists).
Learn about psychologists’ educational background, how they differ from psychiatrists and therapists, why you might benefit from working with a psychologist, and how to find one if you feel they can offer appropriate treatment.
Psychologist: Different From a Psychiatrist
Psychologists are trained in psychotherapy, and their expertise can be used to treat patients. Some may focus on clinical practice, while others prefer to work in education, research, public policy, or healthcare administration. Psychologists can be generalists or specialize in particular fields.
To be considered a psychologist, you must hold a doctorate degree. While all psychologists have doctorate-level credentials, they do not attend medical school and are not medical doctors.
In some states—though not all—psychologists who undergo additional training can prescribe medications for mental health conditions. Psychologists who work in states where they cannot prescribe drugs may work closely with physicians to support their patients who require prescriptions.
You can identify psychologists by researching their credentials, which could include the following:
- Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
- Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)
- Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
How Psychiatrists Are Different
A psychiatrist is a mental health professional who graduates from medical school and specializes in psychiatry. You’ll find the credentials “M.D.” (Doctor of Medicine) or “D.O.” (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) after their name in professional settings. They generally work in a healthcare setting and diagnose and treat mental health conditions using psychotherapy and medications.
Psychologist vs. Therapist: Subtle Differences
Clinical psychologists undergo a doctorate-level education and must become licensed to practice clinical psychology. However, some psychologists work in settings outside of health care, such as research, education, or business, instead of practicing therapy.
A therapist is any behavioral health professional licensed to practice therapy. They are generally required to pass a test and complete a specific number of supervised practice hours, which vary by state. Examples of credentialed behavioral health professionals who can provide therapy include the following:
- Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW)
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
- Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC)
- Masters of Clinical Social Work (MCS)
- Board-Certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners (PMHNP-BC)
Reasons to Work With a Psychologist
There are many reasons to work with a psychologist, including:
- Receiving a diagnosis or treatment for a mental health concern through psychotherapy
- Determining unique educational needs and developing a learning plan
- Coping with challenging life situations or transitions
- Emotional or cognitive support or support managing a health condition
- Achieving a goal, such as making a career change or enhancing sports performance
- Improving relationship dynamics such as family, marriage, or parenting
Psychologists offer support in various areas, and the benefits depend on their specialization. For example, a school psychologist can help children with learning differences to thrive academically and help to prevent and address concerns related to school health and safety, including bullying and substance use disorder.
Health psychologists help people make decisions and take actions to live in ways that support their health, which is important, considering many health conditions are preventable and treatable with lifestyle changes. For example, chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease account for 70% of deaths and 75% of healthcare costs and are influenced by lifestyle.
Psychologists who have undergone specialized clinical training and licensure requirements can use the title of a licensed clinical psychologist. In certain states (Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, and New Mexico—with other states undergoing the approval process currently), a prescribing psychologist undergoes training and licensing to prescribe medications.
Types of psychologists include:
- Clinical psychologist
- Counseling psychologist
- Developmental psychologist
- Forensic psychologist
- Health psychologist
- Industrial and organizational psychologist
- School psychologist
- Sports psychologist
How to Find a Psychologist
You can find a clinical or counseling psychologist by asking for a referral from a healthcare provider or by checking with insurance plans to find in-network providers. School psychologists often work in the public school system.
Asking a trusted friend or family member for a recommendation may help you find a psychologist. Ensure the psychologist has training or expertise in the support area you need because not all psychologists can help in the same way.
Psychologist Education and Professional Background
Licensed clinical psychologists must have doctorate degrees, undergo specialized training, obtain specific supervised clinical hours, and pass a licensure examination. However, the requirements vary by state, and some psychologists with a master’s degree may be able to practice clinical psychology if a doctorate-level clinical psychologist supervises them.
These professionals often work in a healthcare setting, providing psychotherapy. Some may also go through additional training and licensing to be able to prescribe medications.
Psychologists are mental health professionals with doctorate-level degrees who can provide psychotherapy, neuropsychological or diagnostic assessment, and, in some states, prescribe medication for certain mental health conditions. Psychologists work in various settings, from schools to clinics to governmental agencies and more. They are among the diverse behavioral health providers who can provide therapy, though their expertise expands beyond talk therapy.
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