Psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors… If you’re thinking about speaking to a mental health professional, all the different names can be seriously confusing. And if it wasn’t already difficult enough, in the UK, the differences between them aren’t always so clear-cut. Sometimes a psychotherapist will call themselves a therapist, and they might even offer counselling services to help you cope. 

It’s enough to put anyone’s head in a spin. And these kinds of blurry lines can make things a little challenging when you’re trying to pick the best one for you. With this in mind, we’ve done the hard work for you and cleared up the definitions. 

What is a psychotherapist?

Psychotherapy — sometimes referred to as ‘talking therapy’ — can be used to treat individuals, couples, families or even groups. Essentially, it involves talking about your feelings to a trained professional to help you overcome any problems you may be having. Whether you’re dealing with stress and troublesome habits or poor mental health, a psychotherapist will help you make sense of what’s bothering you. 

To do this, a psychotherapist might use a broad range of different talking therapies including:

  • cognitive behavioural therapies
  • systemic and family psychotherapy
  • psychoanalytic therapies
  • psychodynamic therapies
  • arts and play therapies
  • humanistic and integrative psychotherapies

Confusingly, ‘psychotherapist’ is a pretty broad umbrella term. It describes anyone who is trained to treat people using talking therapy, so it can cover anyone from psychiatrists to psychologists. They’ll have trained for at least three or four years but maybe even longer. For instance, if they’re a psychologist they’ll have at least six years’ of experience under their belt. 

Whilst there’s a lot of overlap between them, a psychotherapist will usually take a more in-depth approach than that of a counsellor. They’re also better equipped to deal with complex mental health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and personality disorders. 

In your session, they’ll create a safe space for you to untangle any uncomfortable emotions and experiences you may have encountered growing up. Then they’ll look at your current difficulties and symptoms. By taking a look at the bigger picture, they’ll see how your past experiences may have shaped who you are today. Over time, you’ll learn to work through any painful or buried emotions you may have. And hopefully you’ll eventually process them and let go of the hurt you’re feeling.

Because it’s an in-depth process, psychotherapy typically has a longer treatment time than counselling. You might go to sessions 1-5 times a week, and you may continue to see your therapist for six months to several years depending on how much support you need. 

What is a psychologist?

Being a psychologist is an incredibly rewarding job. They learn about why people think, act, feel and behave the way they do, and can help people overcome or control any problems they may be having. Qualifying isn’t easy though. They need: 

  • a psychology degree accredited by The British Psychological Society (BPS)
  • Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership
  • an accredited postgraduate qualification in their specialism

Psychologists are highly-trained. Not only do they have a three-year undergraduate degree under their belt, but they also have a three-year postgraduate degree in their chosen specialism (e.g. counselling psychology or clinical psychology). Add that on to the years they’ve spent treating people just like you, and they’re well-equipped to help people improve their mental wellbeing. 

Remember psychologists have studied long and hard to pick up on the subtle cues that many of us miss. They can tell when you’re holding back, know how to encourage you to open up and can spot the tell-tale signs of mental illness. As experts in their field, they’ve helped so many people get their mental health back on track.

What is a counselling psychologist and a clinical psychologist?

There is a big overlap between clinical and counselling psychologists. Both have specialised by completing a three-year doctorate, and they’re employed in similar workplaces, including universities, community health clinics, hospitals, and private practice. They’re more similar than they are different. However, you’re more likely to find a clinical psychologist working in a hospital setting than a counselling psychologist.  

Both are well-equipped to treat a wide-range of mental health issues including anxiety and depression. But they can also deal with more surface-level issues, such as work stress, relationship difficulties or self improvement. 

Counselling psychologists have studied a three-year psychology degree and then a further three-year postgraduate degree in counselling psychology. And clinical psychologists have also had six years of university education, having completed a three-year psychology degree and then a further three-year postgraduate degree in clinical psychology. 

Seeing a psychologist for the first time? Here’s what to expect

It can be nerve-wracking going to a therapist for the first time. But remind yourself of what a worthwhile investment it will be. Maybe you want to better manage your anxiety. untangle some relationship difficulties you’ve been having or simply need to get to the root of something you can’t quite put your finger on. The answers you’re looking for might just be in reach. 

In your initial consultation, you and your psychologist will start by getting to know each other a little better. They’ll ask you why you decided to come to therapy, what you hope to get out of it, and explore your past, as well as your current symptoms. 

Once your therapist gets a feel of your problems, they’ll then draw up a plan for how you’ll work on them together. 

Want to know what you can expect from your first therapy session? Here are a few points to keep in mind:

Trust your gut 

When it comes to poor mental health, starting the conversation can be difficult. But if you find a therapist you click with, it can make the process a whole lot easier. Your therapist isn’t there to be your best friend (that’s what makes this relationship so valuable) but they should make you feel completely comfortable and at ease. Remember you’re not only sharing a chunk of your time with your therapist every week, you’ll also be sharing personal, and sometimes vulnerable, emotions. Therefore, you want to feel like you can trust them. 

No two therapists are the same and there are some you may feel you can open up to more than others. The best thing you can do is trust your instincts and ask yourself ‘is this the right person for me?’ If you decide it isn’t, don’t give up hope. Simply try to see a different therapist. Your therapeutic journey is deeply personal, so it’s okay if they’re not the right one for you. Just keep going. 

Be sure to participate

You get out of therapy as much as you put in. So if you don’t actively participate, you probably won’t find the process as valuable. Remember your therapist can’t do all the hard work for you. It’s a team effort. So be open about how you’re feeling, ask questions and use your time wisely. 

Embrace your emotions

If you tend to bottle up your emotions, therapy may seem like a completely alien experience. In the past, you may have felt like you didn’t want to burden anyone and have been ‘holding it together’ for a while. As you start to unpack these deep feelings, you may experience an intense emotional response. You might even break down and cry — and that’s okay. It’s completely natural and there’s nothing to feel embarrassed about. Releasing these pent up emotions is sure to offer you an overwhelming sense of relief.

Remember its confidential 

The beauty about therapy is that anything you say remains strictly confidential between you and your therapist. This means you don’t have to hold back. Remember your therapist has studied long and hard to get where they are today, and with their added years of practical experience, they’ll have seen and heard it all before. Now is the perfect time to get everything off your chest. So be open with your therapist, and more importantly, be open with yourself.