There are many differences between psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists. Some are clearly distinct. Others are subtle and less obvious but may actually be more significant.
The first matter is the license. A psychologist is a health care professional who has been granted a license to treat persons with mental and emotional disorders. Psychologists cannot prescribe medication. Usually, after their name, you will find the initials Ph.D., Psy.D. or Ed.D.. However, because a person uses these initials after their name does not mean they have a license to practice psychology. A person could have earned a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in Literature. This would likely qualify them to teach literature, but probably not to practice as a psychologist.
In most cases, professionals with a Psy.D. or an Ed.D. have completed enough coursework in psychology and have had enough supervised training and experience working with persons to qualify for a license as a psychologist. However, this does not mean that they have one. As a consumer, you have the right to and should ask the psychologist you are considering working with if they are licensed, if not why not, and about their education, training and areas of expertise. In most cases, if you wish to have your services paid for by your health insurance plan, the psychologist must have a license. A license signifies a standard of education and training.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD). Psychiatrists have earned a medical degree from an institution after going to medical school and have training required of all other medical doctors. As it relates to mental health, parts of their education that are particularly important, such as biological, physical and neurological conditions that could have mental health aspects are obtained through a course of training called a residency. In residency, a psychiatrist learns how to conduct psychotherapy and receives the required education and training that allows them to prescribe medication. Again, with a psychiatrist, you should ask if they are licensed, if not why not, and about their background, training and areas of expertise.
You should also know that any medical doctor can prescribe psychiatric medications, as well as Physician Assistants (PA) and some nurses known as an APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse). Please be aware, that just because any medical doctor, such as a podiatrist or an APRN may offer to prescribe medication to you for an emotional or psychiatric condition, they may not have had much training in mental health. This may result in them making a choice for you about a medication that may not be helpful and which could lead to side effects and complications.
Where both psychologists and psychiatrists are required to hold a license to offer mental health services to the public, a psychotherapist does not have to. This is where is can get tricky. Nearly anyone with a background in the mental health field, for example a social worker (Master’s Degree in Social Work or LCSW, Licensed Clinical Social Worker) can identify themselves as a psychotherapist. There are truly excellent and highly experienced social workers who are wonderful psychotherapists. If they have a license (LCSW), you may be eligible to have your services paid for through health insurance. Again, questions about training and expertise apply.
Do not forget, you are the consumer and have a right to and should make a careful and informed decision before entering into a psychotherapeutic relationship.