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Mental Health Support: Psychologist, Psychiatrist or Counsellor – What’s the difference?

Once you decide to seek mental health support, a general practitioner (GP) is typically the first point of contact. You can book an appointment online, or find a local clinic near you to discuss your concerns in person. 

During your consultation, the Doctor will assess your mental health by discussing your symptoms, medical history, and any challenges you are facing. Based on the assessment, they may develop a personalised mental health treatment plan (MHTP); if you’re not sure what that is, check out our FAQwhat is a mental health care plan’ here.

Caring for someone living with a mental health condition often involves various supports, including specialists. With that in mind, your doctor may provide you a referral as part of your plan – commonly to psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors. Each can play a unique role in mental health treatment, with distinct qualifications and areas of expertise, so understanding the role of each of these professions is the first step to finding the right mental health support. 

What is a Psychologists role in mental health treatment? 

Psychologists focus on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health and emotional issues. They use evidence-based therapies, techniques, and treatment plans to help individuals manage and overcome their mental health challenges. Psychologists often provide therapy and counselling for various conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and trauma, and relationship issues. 

  • Qualifications: Psychologists in Australia typically hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology followed by postgraduate studies, such as a Master’s or Doctoral degree in psychology. They must also complete supervised practice and meet registration requirements set by the Psychology Board of Australia. 
  • Treatment Approach: Psychologists use a variety of therapeutic approaches, including cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), psychoanalytic therapy, and mindfulness-based therapies. They may work in various settings, including private practice, hospitals, schools, and community health centres. 

What is a Psychiatrists role in mental health treatment? 

Psychiatrists are specialist doctors and have extensive training to diagnose and treat mental health conditions. They have the knowledge and skills to prescribe medication and deliver psychotherapy, offering a comprehensive range of treatments tailored to individual needs. p 

  • Qualifications: Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed medical school and then specialised in psychiatry. They hold a Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) or equivalent degree and have completed further specialist training in psychiatry. 
  • Treatment Approach: Psychiatrists can provide a comprehensive assessment of mental health, including physical health factors. They may use medication, therapy, or a combination of treatments to address a person’s mental health needs. They may also work in hospitals, clinics, and private practice. 

What is a Counsellors role in mental health treatment? 

Counsellors provide emotional support, guidance, and counselling to individuals facing various life challenges, including relationship problems, grief, stress, and personal development. In their role, counsellors facilitate a journey of self-exploration for their clients, helping them delve into their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. Through this process, they assist clients in developing effective coping strategies. 

  • Qualifications: Counsellors in Australia can have a diverse range of qualifications, and there is no specific regulatory body governing the profession. A trained counsellor usually has spent 3+ years studying a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, counselling, or related fields, while others may have an equivalent level of training in another accredited higher education institution.  
  • Treatment Approach: Counsellors typically use talk therapy and counselling techniques to assist clients in addressing specific issues and improving their well-being. They often work in private practice, schools, community organisations, and employee assistance programs. 

Chatting with your doctor can help you make an informed decision about the most appropriate mental health professional for your situation. It’s important that you feel actively involved in choosing your mental health care team. Your choice may depend on whether you prefer medication or therapy, or both, your comfort level with the therapist’s approach and qualifications, or just personal preference. It’s your choice. 

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