Difference between a Psychologist, Psychiatrist and a Counsellor 2020-07-28T07:04:37+00:00

Difference between a Psychologist, Psychiatrist and a Counsellor

The difference between a Psychologist, Psychiatrist and a Counsellor

In seeking support for mental health issues, it is important to understand the roles of different professionals. This can give you a better understanding of the different support services available, how they can assist you, and which is better suited to your needs to find a therapist in Melbourne. To do this we will examine the difference between a psychologist, psychiatrist and a counsellor. We will also review the different endorsements within the profession of psychology. Let’s look at psychiatry and counselling first.


A psychiatrist has a medical degree and can be thought of as a medical doctor who specialises in mental health. Psychiatrists can formally assess, diagnosed and set a treatment plan for mental health conditions. Psychiatrists can work in hospital settings and also in private practice. A typical psychiatrist in Melbourne will usually be working with more complex mental health disorders, such as Bipolar and Schizophrenia, which usually involve medication as part of the treatment plan. Unlike a psychologist or counsellor, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication as part of their treatment plan for mental health disorders.

Due to the high costs involved and demand for their services, psychiatrist rarely engage in longer term, talk-based therapy interventions and will typically refer onto a psychologist to provide psychotherapy support. Seeing a psychiatrist usually involves a referral from a GP but can also result from a hospital admission, where some individuals may be assigned a mental health team for on-going support. As stated, seeing a psychiatrist is usually reserved for more complex mental health issues but they still deal with a variety of presentations. The discipline of psychiatry is a regulated industry under the Australian Health and Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).


The discipline of counselling is typically focused on helping individuals via short-term, problem solving skills. Seeing a counsellor in Melbourne can give people an opportunity to talk about their issues and “get things off their chest”. A counsellor will usually focus on a specific problem to help people work through, rather than assessing underlying issues.

The most common context to see a counsellor would be to address a situational or circumstantial problem. For example, grief, a relationship or other interpersonal breakdown, assistance with life direction, career counselling etc., all of which are examples of non-mental health related problems. Of course, stressful circumstances can effect mental health, but once these circumstances are resolved and support is engaged, the problem/symptoms will typically resolve. For more long-term, persistent mental health issues, seeing an expert in mental health and behaviour, like a psychiatrist or psychologist is recommended.

Unlike other allied health professionals registered with AHPRA (psychiatrists and psychologists), counselling in not a government regulated industry. The term “counsellor” is not a regulated, or legally protected term, which means anyone can call themselves a counsellor without fulfilling a standard of training. It may be important to check the training credentials and background if you are engaging with a counsellor.


The discipline of psychology is the broadest profession out of the three. But before exploring the breadth of its practice we will look at how a psychologist working in a one-on-one therapy setting is different from a psychiatrist or counsellor.

Unlike counselling, the profession of psychology is regulated by AHPRA. A fully registered psychologist requires a minimum of 6 years training, which includes completion of a masters, doctorate, or internship phase. Psychologist can sometimes take on the role of a counsellor, i.e., giving people a space to talk out a specific problem, but will more likely focus on assessments and interventions within the mental health sphere. Psychologists are trained to use evidence-based practice when assessing clients and selecting appropriate interventions. In other words, a psychology will work on a specific problem with tools and processes that have been shown to be effective in peer reviewed literature.

The 8 major sub-disciplines in psychology are as follows:

  • Neuropsychology

The study and management of brain traumas

  • Clinical

Focused on assessment and intervention of psychological distress. Most clinical psychologist in Melbourne work in the same setting (talk-based psychotherapy) as general psychologists.

  • Community

Studying individuals within the context of wider communities or organisations

  • Counselling

Branching outside the domain of psychological distress and specialising in career development, health and well being etc.,

  • Educational

A focus on the scientific study of human learning

  • Developmental

The scientific study of how humans develop and change over their lifetime.

  • Forensic

The study of psychology in relation to law and how it applies to legal questions, i.e., is someone with a significant mental health condition responsible for their actions in the context of a crime.

  • Health

The study of psychological and behavioural processes in relation to health and the factors that influence it.

From these brief descriptions we can see that each discipline can specialise in a particular area of mental health or behaviour. For example, a clinical neuropsychologist may focus on assessment and management of brain injuries, while a forensic psychologist could work within the judicial system providing assessments and recommendations for offenders. However, the majority of clinical psychologists in Melbourne and general psychologists in Melbourne work in one on one therapy settings.

Another major difference between a psychologist and counsellor is access to the Mental Health Care Plan, which gives individuals 10 rebated sessions a year from a psychologist. Counsellors are not eligible under this service. Read more (link to “How to see a psychologist in Melbourne”) about how to access the Mental Health Care Plan to see a psychologist in Melbourne.

Most individuals who see a psychologist to improve their mental health will see a general or clinical psychologist. A clinical psychologist has to complete a registrar program which typically involves some work in a hospital setting. However, there is no evidence to suggest a clinical psychologist is more effective than a general psychologist, as the effectiveness of therapy depends on many factors outside the length of academic study of a practitioner.