Psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, counsellor…What’s the difference?

Not all counsellors are psychologists and not all psychologists are counsellors…

Often I am asked what the difference is between a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a social worker. And where do counsellors fit in? Hopefully this post can clear a few of those things up.

‘Therapist’, ‘psychotherapist’, and ‘counsellor’ are all words we generally use interchangeably. They all describe someone who provides therapeutic support to people who are experiencing difficulties related to behaviours, thoughts, feelings, and relationships, often referred to as ‘mental health issues’. For the purposes of this post, to save any further confusion, I will refer to this intervention as ‘counselling’. Each of the professions mentioned are able to provide counselling in some form or another (the specific type of counselling they provide is dependent on a number of things, such as their chosen speciality, and is outside the scope of this post).


The title ‘psychiatrist’ is often confused with ‘psychologist’. The two words sound so similar and it is easy to get them mixed up. However, psychiatrists are very different to psychologists, social workers, and counsellors for one very important reason – they are medical doctors. Psychiatrists go through all the usual avenues to become medical doctors and then they continue their studies to specialise in the area of psychiatry (mental illness), studying for a minimum of ten years. They have a wealth of knowledge about the connection between body and mind. What also sets them apart is, as medical doctors, they can prescribe medication. None of the other professions mentioned here are able to do that. Psychiatrists generally work with people with more severe cases of mental illness. They can provide counselling, but as their fees are usually sky high (for those in private practice), most people don’t see them on a long-term, regular basis for this purpose (but there are always exceptions). Psychiatrists often work in consultation with mental health teams, alongside other professions, providing specialised support and knowledge. For more information about psychiatrists, you can check out the The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) page.


With specialised knowledge in the various aspects of human behaviour, psychologists can work in a wide range of service settings. Although a large majority of psychologists do provide counselling services, this is not always the case. For example, some psychologists specialise in clinical or forensic research, or in conducting psychological assessment and testing. Counselling psychologists specialise in providing treatment for diagnosed mental illness and use evidence-based counselling interventions. A registered psychologist must have a four-year bachelor degree in Psychology, followed by a post-graduate degree or two years supervised training. Clinical psychologists complete additional studies, often a Masters or PhD, further specialising in the area of diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. (Don’t forget that someone with a Phd can use the title ‘Doctor’ but that does not make them a medical doctor, and they can’t prescribe medication). You can find out more about psychologists on the Australian Psychology Accreditation Council (APAC) website and the Australian Psychological Society site.

Social Workers

In Australia, social workers provide a wide range of support to individuals, families and groups in diverse contexts, with a focus on social, psychological, and cultural needs. All social workers share an underlying commitment to human rights and social justice and can work in roles such as casework, advocacy, and community development. Social workers are trained in human development and counselling interventions in their undergraduate studies. However some will choose to continue their training to specialise in counselling. These ‘clinical social workers’ or Accredited Mental Health Social Workers (AMHSW’s) are required to register with the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) and maintain this registration, which is similar to the requirements for Registered Psychologists. AMHSW’s need to complete a four-year bachelor degree in social work, as well as completing another two years of supervised practice in a mental health field. Most AMHSW’s work in private practice and provide evidence based counselling interventions for people with mental health conditions and related issues.

It is worth mentioning here that AMHSW’s are eligible to provide Medicare rebates for counselling sessions under the Better Access to Mental Health Care Initiative, and the Primary Health Network Mental Health Service (PHNMHS) (previously ATAPS) alongside Psychologists and other eligible mental health professionals.


As I’ve already mentioned, ‘counsellor’ can be a generic term used for different professions who provide counselling services. However, there are various avenues that a person can take to become a ‘counsellor’, other than the ones already mentioned. Often people study counselling courses, such as a Bachelor, Diploma or Masters degree, that provide training on various types of counselling theories and practices. These courses will  usually lead to a counsellor being eligible to register with a professional association, such as the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) or the Australian Counselling Association (ACA). These organisations ensure that approved courses provide sufficient education and preparation for counsellors to practice competently and professionally. There are also many other short-term courses and less recognised education programs. These are not usually eligible for membership and are less likely to provide adequate education and training. This might be worth checking out before you hand over your hard earned money.

Having said that, one of the most important things in a counselling relationship, alongside the counsellors competence and knowledge, is that you feel your counsellor is someone you can trust and that they can help you. However if you are uncertain and would like to find out more about their qualifications and training, don’t be afraid to ask! It is safe to say that people who work in these roles are people who want to help others. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Check qualifications if it helps but don’t let the degrees or titles influence you more than they need to. Every person is unique and the same can be said about counsellors. Now that you are armed with this knowledge, here’s hoping you find the right person or people to help you.

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