By MercyOne on Monday, March 15, 2021


What's the difference?

Therapist, Psychologist, Psychiatrist

When it comes to mental and behavioral health, you often hear the terms psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor and therapist.  It can be confusing to know which person you should seek for help.


“A therapist is someone who primarily provides mental health treatment through talk therapy,” says Natasha Keller, tLMHC, PLMHP, NCC, who works with children at the MercyOne Siouxland Child Advocacy Center in Sioux City. “For someone to be a therapist, they need a master’s degree in social work or mental health counseling.”

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There are many reasons people go to therapy and counseling. You do not need a mental health disorder to seek therapy.

“Therapy and counseling can improve many areas of your life – whether it be your relationships, general happiness, performance at work, or self-improvement,” says Keller.  “You will want to seek out a therapist who has a specialized skill set for the area you need.”


A psychologist is one type of therapist.

“People who are psychologists will work as counselors, therapists, but also work in industry, forensic issues and court situations,” says Dan Ekstrom, PsyS at MercyOne Waterloo Behavioral Health Care. “We have gone to graduate school.  At the present time the standard for a psychologist is to have a doctorate degree in the field of psychology and to pass a licensing exam.”

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One area that differentiates a psychologist from other therapists is that they offer psychological testing. This testing may be used in court, qualifications of programs, and assessments for disorders such as learning disabilities, ADHD or testing for personality.


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, typically with an MD or DO, and becomes board certified.  Psychiatrists approach human behavior through a biological or neurochemical standpoint and may prescribe medication to treat your symptoms.

“We work very closely with psychologists and therapists, but we provide the medical management of psychiatric disorders,” says Dr. Tyler Van Milligen, a third year resident at MercyOne Psychiatric Residency Program. “Everyone has mental health.  And just like physical health, there are varying degrees of how healthy you are.”

STORIES: Hear from Iowans living with mental illness

Where to get started

Which type of expert is right for you?  If possible, begin the discussion with your primary care provider, who can provide a referral to a mental health expert or guide you to someone who can help. You may need to check with your insurance company to learn if there is a preferred behavioral health provider in your area.  For individuals without insurance, there are non-profit agencies with grant funding or government-funded behavioral health providers that can help you.


Get more insight on the differences between the different mental health care providers and learn what a meeting with a therapist, psychologist and psychiatrist might look like by hearing from a variety of experts.

MercyONeMercyOne is dedicated to providing specialized, family-centered treatment for adolescents, adults and seniors. Through inpatient and outpatient programs, our behavioral health experts empower you to take control and get back to living your best life. Find a behavioral health expert near you.