What is the difference between Psychiatrist, Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist?

Psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and psychotherapists have all been professionally trained to help people with psychological distress or mental illness.

  • Psychiatry


Psychiatry is a medical speciality, like general practice, surgery, general medicine or  paediatrics. You have to train for 5 years as a doctor and in the UK – like every other medical specialty – do 2 further years of “Foundation” jobs in hospitals before you can start to specialise in psychiatry. It usually takes another 4 years to pass the two professional exams of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, after which you can specialise further.

Theoretical background

Like other areas of medicine, psychiatry builds its knowledge through the observation of unusual and distressing conditions. It uses a diagnostic system, which tries to identify clusters of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that seem to occur together – or “syndromes”. These are then investigated to find social, psychological and any physical causes, with a view to finding effective ways of helping.


Psychiatrists work with people of every age, but usually with people who have more severe disorders, such a schizophrenia, that may require some sort of medical treatment. This often, but not always, involves the prescription of medication. A psychiatrist can take into account psychological and social factors and will tailor any treatment plan according to the needs of the individual.

  • Clinical Psychology


A Clinical Psychologist will have gained a degree in psychology at university. After gaining further experience working in relevant healthcare settings, Clinical Psychologists then do 3 years Doctorate clinical training in an approved training scheme at university. During this time they work with patients under supervision from experienced psychologists and study for an academic doctorate as well as their first degree. They complete training placements with adults, children, older adults and people with learning difficulties.

They are trained to work in NHS settings using several models of psychological therapy (usually Cognitive Behavioural Therapy plus at least one other model eg psychodynamic/systemic) and to work consultatively in the NHS organisation. They learn also research methods and skills in service development.

Theoretical background

Psychology has historically applied a more formal experimental approach to exploring both  normal and abnormal states of mind, with the emphasis more on clarifying psychological mechanisms rather than physiological ones.


In their daily work, clinical psychologists will work psychologically with a wide range of problems and client groups – from eating disorders to schizophrenia and dementia. Most clinical  psychologists will specialise in a particular type of assessment or therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or neuropsychology.

  • Psychotherapy


A psychotherapist can come from any professional background, including medicine and psychology – or none. However, a psychotherapy training is usually quite separate from either of these disciplines.

Theoretical background

There are a number of different types of psychotherapy that can be found today, all of which have different theories of how the mind works and associated methods of intervention. Different therapies suit different people – and different problems. The most common is probably cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). In CBT, the therapist helps a client to look at and change any unhelpful ways of thinking that may be interfering with their life.

Traditional psychoanalytic therapy looks more at the importance of early relationships and how these templates affect a person’s behaviour in the present.

Counselling emphasises the individual’s ability to clarify their problems and arrive at their own solutions.


A psychotherapist can work one-to-one with individuals or with groups of people with a similar problem. Individual meetings can take place once every week or two, as in CBT, or up to 5 times a week with psychoanalytic therapy.

Professional Organisations



  • British Psychological Society: Information about training as a psychologist, how to find a psychologist, and career development events. In addition, there is some recent research on psychological topics, and an FAQ section about the Society and psychology in general.
    Tel: 0116 254 9568; Email: enquiry@bps.org.uk

Further Information

What are the differences between psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy? (the NHS website)