Understanding the Differences Between a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Psychotherapist, and Social Worker: Who Does What in Mental Health Care?

In today’s world, seeking mental health support has become increasingly accepted and encouraged. However, given the variety of professionals offered in the mental health field, understanding the differences between them can cause confusion and additional stress for people seeking help. Let’s delve into the roles of a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and social worker, to help differentiate their roles, and to shed light on their unique contributions to the field of mental health. 

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the field of mental health. After completing medical school, they undergo specialized training in psychiatry, allowing them to diagnose and treat mental health disorders. Psychiatrists are licensed to prescribe medication to help manage psychiatric conditions. While some may also offer psychotherapy, their primary focus is more often medication management, particularly for complex or very challenging mental health conditions, or when there is a complex interaction with physical health issues. In Ontario, psychiatrists will typically only see patients upon referral from a family doctor or other physician, and wait times to see a Psychiatrist can often be quite lengthy. Where urgent care is needed, Psychiatric services can often be accessed through local emergency departments. With some exceptions, their services are typically covered by OHIP.

Woman in Session with a Psychologist

Clinical Psychologists

Clinical Psychologists are mental health professionals who specialize in understanding human behaviour, emotions and mental processes. They typically hold a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology, and their educational experience involves extensive scientific research and training in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues, as well as several years working under the supervision of multiple experienced and licensed Psychologists. Clinical Psychologists use a variety of measures, tools and techniques to evaluate and treat mental health conditions. They may offer treatment to individuals, couples, families, and groups, focusing on evidence-based talk therapies and interventions. They receive extensive training in treating mild to moderate psychological difficulties, and in comparison to other talk therapists, they have the most thorough training for supporting individuals with more severe or complex issues. 

Psychologists in private practice are not typically covered by OHIP, however they are usually covered by private health insurance/extended health care benefit plans (e.g. through an employer). A doctor’s referral is not generally required in order to see a Psychologist, however some private health insurers require that a doctor’s referral be submitted to them prior to reimbursing treatment fees. The services of Psychologists registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario, and their supervisees, are HST-exempt and tax deductible as a medical expense. Psychologists are among the few groups of professionals who can provide mental health diagnoses, however they cannot prescribe medication without additional specialized training and certification in pharmaceutical medicine. 

Psychologist Listening to Senior Woman Patient

Social Workers

Social Workers typically hold a Master’s degree in social work (MSW), with additional years of specialized training in clinical (i.e. actual treatment of patients) practice. They are trained to provide assessments and psychotherapy, and they may offer services to individuals, couples and/or families. Their training places particular emphasis on the role of social and environmental factors influencing mental health, and knowledge of community resources. While social workers often work in diverse settings, including hospitals, mental health clinics, doctor’s offices, schools, and community organizations, Social Workers who offer psychotherapy services often do so in a private practice setting. Social Workers registered with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers will have the additional designation of “RSW”. Social Workers cannot provide formal mental health diagnoses, nor can they prescribe medication, and if offering services in the context of private practice, they are typically not covered by OHIP. However, social work services are often covered by private health insurance/extended health care benefit plans.

Psychologist Having Session with Her Female Patient


Psychotherapist is a broader term that refers to professionals trained in providing various forms of talk therapy to address mental health concerns. Psychotherapists have completed advanced training in mental health counselling or a related field. In Ontario, professionals must be registered with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario in order to use the designation “Psychotherapist”, and in order to obtain licensure, they must hold a minimum of a Master’s degree, have completed 1000 hours of direct client contact, 150 hours of clinical supervision, and have passed a written registration exam. A psychotherapist cannot use psychological testing methods, provide diagnoses, or prescribe medication, and they are not typically covered by OHIP.  Psychotherapist services are sometimes covered by private health insurance/extended health care benefit plans, but this is less often the case than with Psychologists or Social Workers.

In summary, while there are overlaps in the services provided by psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and social workers, each profession brings its own unique expertise, methods, and scope of practice to the table. As outlined above, Clinical Psychologists, Psychotherapists and Social Workers typically offer assessment, psychoeducation and talk therapy, whereas Psychiatrists tend to specialize in brief assessment and medication management, though some also provide psychotherapy.

When seeking mental health support, it may be helpful to consider your specific needs and preferences. Finding a professional whose approach aligns with your values and goals is an important part of effective treatment. If you and/or your family members are covered under a private insurance or extended health care benefits plan, it may be helpful to verify the parameters and extent of your coverage prior to exploring the various mental health professionals available to you. 

If you remain unsure about what type of mental health professional would best meet your needs, speaking with a family doctor is a great place to start. At the Mindful Living Centre, we are here to help make the process of looking for support as efficient and seamless as possible, and we are proud to have a team of warm, caring and highly-skilled Psychologists and Social Workers to serve you. We would be happy to explore your needs and wishes and answer any questions you may have – don’t hesitate to reach out, we’d love to connect with you!

Headshot of Neeta Patni

Ms. Neeta Patni

Clinic Manager

Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.