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Psychotherapist psychologist vs psychiatrist

Whats the ACTUAL difference between a Psychotherapist, Psychologist and Psychiatrist?

Navigating and understanding the differences between various mental health professionals is a source of frequent confusion, given the multitude of titles that may seem interchangeable. It’s understandable to feel confused when confronted with numerous designations that appear to represent similar roles!

Often times clients are just wanting to make sure they have the right professional so they can use their benefits correctly.  No one likes being denied coverage. Let’s unravel the distinctions between psychotherapists (including social workers), psychologists, and psychiatrists to provide a clearer understanding and clear up some of the confusion.


Different Mental Health Professionals


It might be easiest to think about the term psychotherapy as an umbrella term. 

What is a Psychotherapist?

A Psychotherapist is a mental health professional that uses talk therapy, and the development of the therapeutic relationship, to bring about positive change for a client.  

While psychotherapists do not independently diagnose mental health conditions, they play a vital role in offering emotional and behavioral therapy to support individuals with a variety of mental health concerns and diagnosed illnesses.

This includes thoughts, feelings, moods, emotional regulation, communication, insight, perception of memory and behaviors that has negatively impacted their daily lives, social functioning with others, and their general happiness or ability to enjoy life. 

Psychotherapy became a controlled act in 2007.  This means that the term psychotherapist may only be used, and performed, by regulated health professionals. 

The regulation of the term ‘Psychotherapist’ is a way to protect the public from harm. 

These acts are put in place in order to protect the public from unqualified, incompetent and unfit practitioners.

Since 2017, Social Workers were officially encompassed in the term psychotherapist because Social Workers comply with the definition of psychotherapy services.

Psychotherapy services are defined as any form of treatment for psycho-social or emotional difficulties, behavioral maladaptations and/or other problems that are assumed to be of an emotional nature, in which a College member establishes a professional relationship with a client for the purposes of promoting positive personal growth and development. 

As such, Registered Social Workers (RSW) will likely have the title of psychotherapist beside their name. 

However, social workers are also required to add MSW, RSW to their designation. (eg. Jane Doe, Psychotherapist MSW, RSW).

With psychotherapy as an umbrella term, Who can provide the controlled act of psychotherapy? 

  • Social Workers registered with OCSWSSW

  • Registered Psychotherapists, 

  • College of Psychologists of Ontario

  • College of Nurses of Ontario

  • College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario

  • College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. 


Can Psychotherapists Diagnose?

Yes and No. Only Psychologists and Psychiatrists can diagnose mental health conditions. Because psychotherapy is an umbrella term for a number of different mental health practitioners, it depends on the specific credentials of the psychotherapist. Although all psychotherapsits can provide mental health counselling and therapy, if you are specifically looking for a mental health diagnosis it would be a good idea to work with a psychologist or psychiatrist first.
Although social workers or other forms of psychotherapists may be unable to diagnose specific mental health conditions, some offer additional specializations and trainings in mental health that can assist clients in overcoming and managing symptoms of these mental health issues. A diagnosis is also just part of the mental health journey. Many clients feel that real change happens through the therapeutic process in sessions with their therapist.

Psychotherapist vs. Psychologist – What’s The Difference? – Infographic

Psychologist vs. Psychologist, Whats the difference between psychologist and psychotherapist?

What is a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medically trained, meaning they have completed Med School and are qualified medical doctors. You would likely see the designation of M.D associated with their name. 

Psychiatrists have branched off to focus on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health issues. 

Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.  They are able to prescribe medication as well as provide a diagnosis using the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 

Their diagnoses are based on criteria established in the DSM which provides descriptions, symptoms and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders. 

Psychiatrists in Ontario are typically covered by OHIP due to their nature as medical professionals. Some psychiatrists see clients ongoing while others only see clients for the purpose of assessment, diagnosis and medication follow-up. 

What is a Psychologist?

Psychologists and psychological associates are extensively trained require an advanced degree in the study of the human behaviour.  More specifically:

Psychologists and psychological associates are trained in the assessment, treatment and prevention of behavioural and mental conditions. They diagnose neuropsychological disorders and dysfunctions as well as psychotic, neurotic and personality disorders and dysfunctions. 

In addition, psychologists and psychological associates use a variety of approaches directed toward the maintenance and enhancement of physical, intellectual, emotional, social and interpersonal functioning.  

Essentially, a psychologist has extensive training in research or clinical practice and can provide psychological testing and evaluation.  

Just to add to the confusion, they can also be referred to as Doctors.  The distinction is that psychologists won’t likely be a doctor of medicine but rather have obtained a doctorate PhD.

A psychologist with a PhD is a professional who has completed an original thesis offering a significant new contribution to knowledge.  They are also required to defend their thesis to their peers. It is important to note that not all psychologists have PhDs, and not all Doctors are M.D’s.

What is a Social Worker and What does MSW, RSW mean?

Social Workers, with the designations MSW (Masters of Social Work) and RSW (Registered Social Worker), bring a unique perspective to mental health care. Trained to assess, treat, and evaluate individuals, social workers employ social work knowledge and interventions to address psychosocial and social functioning.

While social workers do not provide an official medical diagnosis, they may contribute valuable information to the diagnostic process and can assist clients in overcoming and managing symptoms of these mental health issues. A diagnosis is also just part of the mental health journey. Many clients feel that real change happens through the therapeutic process in sessions with their therapist.

Social Workers adhere to a professional code of ethics and continuously engage in learning and development to provide high-quality social work practice.

Bachelors of Social Work (BSW) vs. Masters of Social Work (MSW) vs. Registered Social Worker (RSW)


A mental health professional that has the credential BSW, means that they have a bachelor of social work and completed ~ 4 years of an undergraduate social work program.  Having a BSW is an entry level requirement for becoming registered with a professional college. 


A Masters of Social Work typically requires a BSW and an additional year of post-graduate education at the University level.  MSW program students are required to complete their course work as well as practical training in the form of supervised placements.  


A RSW is a registered social worker that has pursued additional and specialized education at the university level but has also registered with a professional college. 

The professional college (Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers) requires that all members participate in continued learning and development.  This involves continuing education and skills development to fulfill the requirements of their professional regulatory body and continue their social work practice. 

Registered social work members are held to a professional code of ethics to ensure professional conduct and protect the public.

Insurance Implications for Therapists with MSW, RSW

For the purpose of insurance coverage, your insurance provider may want you to find an MSW, RSW.  You must find a professional that has both designations beside their names.

Insurance companies will only provide funding for professional registered with a college because of the professional standards associated with the colleges. 

Meaning, if you only find a therapist with the MSW title, but are not registered as a RSW it is likely you will not receive coverage. This is true across all mental health professionals.

Whats the Difference Between Psychiatrists and Psychologists? – Infographic

Psychiatrists vs Psychologists

difference between psychotherapist psychologist and psychiatrist - infographic

Education and Licensing Requirements for a Psychotherapist vs Psychologist vs Psychiatrist:

Psychotherapists: Psychotherapy became a controlled act in 2007.  This means that the term psychotherapist may only be used, and performed, by regulated health professionals. 

Since 2017, Social Workers were officially encompassed in the term psychotherapist because Social Workers comply with the definition of psychotherapy services.

Typically a master’s degree in counselling psychology, social work, nursing, or a related field is a prerequisite for most psychotherapy roles in many provinces. Master’s programs generally span two to three years, encompassing 48 to 60 credits based on the specific program requirements.

Social Workers (MSW, RSW): An entry level Bachelor of social work (BSW) is obtained, followed by a Masters of Social Work (MSW), which is an additional post-graduate education. A Registered Social Worker (RSW) designation involves specialized education and registration with a professional college such as the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW).

Psychologists: Advanced degrees in psychology, requiring a PhD in addition to research or clinical practice with a defended thesis. They are regulated by provincial licensing bodies.

Psychiatrists: Completion of medical school with an M.D. designation. Psychiatrists in Ontario are typically covered by OHIP.

Treatment Focus for a Psychotherapist vs Psychologist vs Psychiatrist:

Psychotherapists: Address psycho-social or emotional difficulties and behavioral maladaptation. Offer talk therapy and counselling.

Social Workers (MSW, RSW): Aim to achieve optimum psychosocial and social functioning. Can provide social work interventions.

Psychologists: Assess neuropsychological disorders, psychotic, neurotic, and personality disorders. Conduct psychological testing and evaluation.

Psychiatrists: Emphasize medical and physical aspects of psychological problems. Diagnose using the DSM and prescribe medication.

Essential Skills for all Mental Health Professionals:

Regardless of the specific role, all mental health professionals, including psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, share foundational skills crucial for effective practice:

  • Active listening
  • Empathy
  • Strong communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Patience
  • Ability to establish a therapeutic rapport
  • Cultural competence
  • Commitment to ongoing learning

Unique Skills for Psychotherapists vs Psychologists vs Psychiatrists:

Each mental health professional also contributes unique skills, shaping their distinct roles within the broader landscape of mental health care:

  • Psychotherapists: Psychotherapists excel in therapeutic techniques, including psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and humanistic approaches. Their expertise lies in building strong therapeutic alliances and facilitating positive behavioral change.
  • Psychologists: Psychologists specialize in psychological assessment, research, and evidence-based interventions. Their unique skills include conducting psychological testing, analyzing behavioral patterns, and contributing to academic or clinical research.
  • Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists, as medical doctors, bring distinctive skills in psychiatric evaluation, medication management, and the integration of biological and psychological perspectives. Their ability to diagnose mental health conditions, prescribe medications, and collaborate with other healthcare professionals sets them apart in the field.

While shared foundational skills form the base of effective mental health care, the unique skills of psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists contribute to the diversity and comprehensiveness of their respective roles in fostering mental well-being.

Impact on insurance coverage for Psychiatrist vs Psychologist vs Psychotherapist

In Canada, the terms “counsellor” vs “therapist” are often used interchangeably, referring to professionals providing mental health support, which is acceptable. However, some people also tend to use psychologist vs therapist or psychology vs psychotherapy interchangeably, which is not always correct. Remember the difference between a psychologist and a therapist: a psychologist holds a regulated professional designation with specialized training in psychology and is authorized to diagnose and treat mental health disorders, whereas a therapist is a broader term referring to professionals, including psychologists, social workers, and counselors, who offer therapeutic interventions without necessarily having the authority to diagnose.

Many people search for mental health professionals based on what their insurance companies cover.

Luckily for you, if you are covered under a Psychotherapist, there are a range of professionals you can work with. 

The next step would be determining what you are looking for in terms of help with your mental health:

  • If you are needing a diagnosis and medication, you want a psychiatrist who is covered by OHIP. 
  • If you are looking for psychological tests to be administered, you are looking for a psychologist. 
  • If you are looking for someone who can help you work through challenges with mood, emotional regulation, relationships or talk therapy, you are looking for a psychotherapist.  Psychotherapists can be found in agencies or private practice. 

It is important to note that some insurance companies are very specific as to what they will or will not provide coverage for. 

Some will not cover the umbrella term ‘psychotherapy’ and will only provide coverage for a registered social worker (MSW, RSW) or psychologist, or specifically a Registered Psychotherapist (RP – Registered with the CRPO).  Be sure to call your insurance provider for clarity to be certain of what their coverage actually entails, and certainly ask the mental health provider if you are uncertain of their specific professional designation.  

If you’re interested in Psychotherapy for individuals or Couples Counselling in the Kitchener, Waterloo or Cambridge area contact us today at Trillium Counselling for a consultation or to book an appointment!

We provide MSW, RSW Psychotherapy services.