Types of Therapists

What's the difference between a Psychotherapist and Counsellor, Psychologist and Psychiatrist?

At Good Therapy, we recognise everyone’s pathway to healing or search for support is unique. Whether you have connected with a therapist previously, or you are researching before making an initial appointment, it’s vital to make a considered choice based on up-to-date information.

Understanding Your Options

In Australia, people engaging in therapy generally consult a Psychotherapist, Psychoanalyst, Family Therapist, Counsellor, Mental Health Social Worker or Occupational Therapist, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist.
Although both “Counselling” and “Psychotherapy” are based on talk therapy and many think they are one and the same, there are important differences between a psychotherapist and a counsellor, as well as between a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

What is a Psychotherapist?

Psychotherapy: an overview
Psychotherapy is a healing practice in which a trained practitioner collaborates with an individual to support their wellbeing. Generally, psychotherapy entails a format where a therapist uses “talk therapy” to:
  • Connect with a client in a collaborative, mutual relationship
  • Discuss and explore the client’s past and present challenges, emotions, relationships and beliefs
  • Support their transformation and empowerment to improve their capacity to manage their lives, and heal from any psychological distress they have experienced.
In addition to talk-based therapy, other evidence-based techniques can support clients’ healing and transformation. Depending on a practitioners’ area of expertise, these could include art, music, dance and movement therapies.
People seek out psychotherapy for diverse reasons. They may be drawn to therapy because they:
  • Have detected a pattern of conflict or loss in their lives, and want to explore the hidden dynamics that inhibit them from reaching their full potential
  • Are challenged by an immediate crisis ‐ a relationship breakup; a job redundancy impacting their sense of self; the death of someone they cherish. Therapy offers a chance for individuals to understand their personal narrative
  • Are embracing new opportunities for personal growth, self-discovery and creativity. Therapy is a powerful tool for unlocking insights that help people actualise their goals.
In the context of an individual’s life storyline, psychotherapy supports processes of self-reflection, change and renewal. Psychotherapists look at a person’s holistic needs, focusing on their emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical and behavioural wellbeing. They support people to explore their unconscious beliefs, desires and aspirations. A skilled therapist works with clients in the tradition of “unconditional positive regard” developed by Carl Rogers, in an environment where there is no judgement, only support, and in doing so provides a platform for an individual’s existential growth and empowerment.

Who can provide Psychotherapy services?

Various professionals provide psychotherapy, including psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, social workers, and other specialist therapists. 
Psychotherapists draw on numerous modalities, such as Person-centred approach, Somatic psychotherapy, Jungian analysis, Psychodynamic, Gestalt, Existential or Schema therapy. For information on the different approaches, we encourage you to explore Good Therapy’s Types of Therapy overview.
A skilled psychotherapist will engage their clients in meaningful practice that rewards their curiosity and enriches their understanding of self, others, and the world they inhabit. Underlying this vital work is years of in-depth training in psychotherapy, developmental, social, and relational theory.
All practitioners offering psychotherapy are required to have studied specialist units or courses. Ideally, they will be registered with the appropriate professional body in their field. The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia requires their member practitioners to:
  • Have undertaken substantial, experiential professional training with a demonstrated theoretical base before registration
  • Adhere to a Code of Ethics for professional practice
  • Maintain up-to-date skills and receive peer feedback on the quality of their work, through ongoing supervision, professional development and participation in a Community of Practice with fellow psychotherapists.

Is a Psychotherapist different to a Counsellor?

What is a Counsellor?

A counsellor is a therapist who works with individuals, couples, families and groups to explore and address their identified concerns. Counselling supports clients to achieve improved mental health and wellbeing, through drawing on evidence-based interventions and therapeutic modalities. Approaches that counsellors use may include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness, systems theory, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), or an integration of these. You’ll find more information on different modalities at Good Therapy’s Types of Therapy overview.
The counselling relationship emphasises trust, security, and confidentiality. Counsellors work within a strong framework of integrity and ethical practice. Recognising that clients often need urgent, “point-in-time” support, many counsellors are flexible in how they communicate, offering counselling not only in person but over the phone, through Skype or FaceTime, email and via online “webchat”.
Counselling vs Psychotherapy: What’s the Difference?
Counselling is often seen as similar to psychotherapy because both involve a client meeting with a trained practitioner to talk about their issues, problems and concerns.
However, there are important differences between counselling and psychotherapy. Counselling frequently takes place in shorter time-frames. You may seek counselling because you’re experiencing an immediate challenge: an issue with work, children, or in an intimate relationship. You may require support with a behaviour, like quitting smoking, or anger management.
While counselling may occur over the longer-term, it generally focuses on solutions to immediate or practical issues that can be resolved on a conscious level. Psychotherapy goes “deeper” to explore unconscious patterns and sources of problems, aiming to enhance people’s understanding of their personal stories, motives and archetypes with the goal of transforming their relationship to the world.
Who can provide Counselling services?
Counselling is delivered by a range of practitioners, including psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, and social workers. In Australia, the label “counsellor” is applied broadly to advisors in other industries, such as “Finance” or “Law”. In the context of therapy, the term refers to a practitioner who has undertaken specialist training in particular areas of interest. For example, they may specialise in addictions, grief, relationships, parenting, or career.
To avoid any confusion over the type of counselling provided or qualifications held by a counsellor, Good Therapy encourages clients seeking counselling to connect with a therapist registered with the appropriate professional body:
  • Social workers offering counselling will be affiliated with the Australian Association of Social Work
  • Counsellors and psychotherapists will be registered with the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Australian Counselling Association, or one of several other professional associations
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists will be linked with their governing bodies, Psychology Board of Australia, Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, and Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
This ensures an appropriate level of training and experience. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, in 2017 there were over 20,000 individuals classified as “counsellors” working across Australia.
Good Therapy’s Find a Therapist search tool was designed to help you explore the options, and to choose wisely. 
Good Therapy aims to reduce the stress that is often associated with looking for a therapist. At Good Therapy, we believe it’s important to keep searching until you find a suitable counsellor or therapist.

Psychotherapy, Psychology and Psychiatry

Psychology vs Psychiatry
So psychologists and psychiatrists can both offer counselling and psychotherapy services … but what’s the difference between these professions? Good Therapy knows many people understand the distinction between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, but it’s worth a refresher.
What does a Psychiatrist do?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed additional training in the diagnosis and treatment of psychological conditions. Psychiatrists in Australia undertake at least 11 years of training:
  • An initial 5-year university degree in Medicine
  • 1-2 years’ training as a general doctor
  • 5 years’ further specialised study in psychiatry.
This pathway equips psychiatrists with an understanding of both the biological and psychological basis of clients’ conditions. As doctors, under Australian law they may prescribe medication to clients.
To practice professionally, psychiatrists must be registered with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, and Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, and undertake regular professional development to maintain their skills.
What does a Psychologist do?
A psychologist is a practitioner with a degree in Psychology, which is defined by the Australian Psychological Society as “the study of the human mind and its influences” (APS, 2019). A psychologist may be employed in a range of settings, including by government agencies or private companies; as a self-employed practitioner; or in the not for profit sector. They may undertake a wide variety of functions and services, including psychological assessments and testing; interventions and programs for individuals and groups; and counselling and psychotherapy for clients, couples or groups.
Psychologists with specialised qualifications may work in fields including:
  • Counselling psychology: using counselling and therapeutic techniques to work with clients and assess, treat and resolve problems
  • Clinical psychology: diagnosing and treating people with psychological problems
  • Educational psychology: includes school/ guidance counselling and designing programs to support children and young people in transitions to, within and from school
  • Forensic psychology: undertaking assessment, analysis and diagnosis functions in the criminal and justice systems.
Like psychiatrists, psychologists undertake extensive training:
  • an initial 4-year university degree in Psychology
  • 2 years’ supervised postgraduate training
  • Some have additional endorsed areas of specialisation after completing further training, for example in clinical psychology or neuropsychology.
To practise as a psychologist, a practitioner must be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia and listed with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. They must also undertake ongoing professional development to maintain up-to-date skills and knowledge.
What is the difference between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?
A commonly asked question is: are psychologists doctors? The simple answer is no. Unlike a psychiatrist, a psychologist is not a medical doctor.
Many psychologists do have Masters or Doctoral degrees such as Doctors of Philosophy (PhDs) or Doctors of Psychology, otherwise known as PsyD degrees. These however are not medical doctorates or MDs.
This distinction is perhaps the key difference between psychiatrists and other therapists, including psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists. Psychotherapists, counsellors and psychologists do not have medical training, and hence cannot prescribe psychiatric medication. Many, in fact, do not subscribe to a “medical model” of psychological intervention, and have therefore chosen professions that involve other evidence based therapies as the foundation for their practice. For some psychological conditions with neurological impacts, there may be the need for medication, and in this case Good Therapy encourages you to consult your GP or other health care provider.
Can I see a Psychiatrist or Psychologist for psychotherapy or counselling?
Psychotherapy and counselling focus on talk-based therapy aimed at developing emotional and relational intelligence through self-awareness and compassion, healing the effects of trauma and loss, or resolving the problems of everyday life. Many psychologists and some psychiatrists offer counselling and psychotherapeutic services.
To access a psychiatrist’s services, you need a referral from a GP. The costs of seeing a psychiatrist may be partially met through the Medicare system and private health insurance coverage. To see a psychologist, you won’t necessarily need a GP referral, unless you want to take advantage of the Federal Government’s Better Access mental health plan option.

Which practitioner should I see?

Depending on your needs and objectives, you can consider reaching out to any of the practitioners mentioned here.
At Good Therapy, we acknowledge and respect people’s individual preferences and values. 
Assisting you to find good therapy through providing high quality, meaningful information, we do our utmost to connect you with accredited, ethical practitioners whose focus is to provide you with the support you need. 
You can use Good Therapy's Find a Therapist page to search for a Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Coach or Psychologist. 
We recommend reading our guide to Choosing a Therapist before you begin your search.

Sources: Wampold, B. (2019). The basics of psychotherapy: an introduction to theory and practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association; Campuzzi, D. and Stauffer, M. (2016). Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association; Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) (2019) retrieved August 2019; Australian Psychological Society (APS) (2019) retrieved August 2019; Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) retrieved August 2019.

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