What's the difference?
03 Jan 2023

With mental health awareness on the rise in Singapore and more individuals reaching out to seek help, it is important to increase our mental health literacy. While many of us may be aware that counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists play a crucial role in the mental health service sector, do we know what services they each provide? Since the job scopes of these mental health professionals overlap, it is common for us to be confused with the type of care each role delivers. More often than not, we hear the terms ‘counsellors’, ‘clinical psychologists’, ‘psychiatrists’ and ‘therapists’ being used interchangeably but each title actually serves a different role. Let’s find out more about these respective roles and their differences.  



A therapist is an umbrella term for professionals who are trained and often licensed to provide a range of therapy and rehabilitation for people. This includes counsellors and clinical psychologists. It gets a little tricky here because clinical psychologists can be referred to as therapists, but not all therapists are psychologists. There’s a lot of overlap between the role of a therapist and a clinical psychologist. For instance, both may work with individuals, families or in a group setting. They primarily deal with mental health issues and mental wellbeing (i.e., depression, anxiety, anger management, addictions). However, therapists and counsellors usually work with clients with less severe conditions compared to clinical psychologists. Therapists may also work from a broader perspective, expanding treatment to involve interpersonal connections with partners, family and friends (Wilson, 2022). For instance, therapists include family and marriage therapists who help families or couples resolve interpersonal conflicts. 



Counsellors usually deal with current issues, focusing on present-day behaviours with the aim of helping clients to explore solutions to improve or change unhealthy behaviours. Counsellors typically handle mild to moderate cases by providing short-term consultations (Warwick, 2020) ranging from a few weeks to up to half a year. They do not provide official mental health diagnoses or prescribe medications to clients. Counsellors may refer clients to appropriate specialists such as clinical psychologists or psychiatrists if they deem that more advanced care is required. Some counsellors may integrate various psychotherapy methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy. However, their practice is not limited to evidence-based approaches.   


Clinical psychologists

In Singapore, clinical psychologists must possess at least a Masters in Clinical Psychology to practice. Clinical psychologists are trained in assessing clinical functioning needs, abilities or behaviours using psychometric tests (i.e., personality tests) or psychological assessment tools (National Council of Social Services, 2021). They are also trained in the process of diagnosing mental disorders. Clinical psychologists generally focus on chronic or more severe mental health issues (i.e., major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorder etc.). They provide long-term treatment plans involving psychotherapy or talk therapy to uncover the root cause of the problem. They also teach clients the skills to cope or resolve their distress. It is important to note that clinical psychologists are not medical doctors. However, they are equipped with knowledge and skills to implement evidence-based therapeutic approaches to help clients manage their mental health problems (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Therefore, they cannot prescribe medications to treat mental disorders (unlike psychiatrists). Some clinical psychologists may also be involved with academic research, contributing to the growth of research-based techniques used in therapy.



On the other hand, psychiatrists are medical doctors registered with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC). They are medically trained and have undergone specialised postgraduate clinical residency programmes to diagnose and treat mental disorders. Psychiatrists can provide psychological therapy, but the majority choose to focus on the medical area of mental health such as case management, diagnosis and medication prescription (Ng, 2021). Psychiatrists may refer patients to clinical psychologists and counsellors for psychotherapy in addition to medication treatment. Psychiatrists are often engaged in handling complex mental health cases such as schizophrenia.



Ultimately, each profession above is similar yet different enough to make them suitable for individuals who are seeking specific support in their area of specialisation. Reaching out for mental health assistance may feel daunting, especially when navigating uncharted waters. Therefore, understanding the different services mental health professionals provide and their roles may help you attain the most appropriate support you need. If you are still unsure who to seek help from, don’t be afraid to reach out to these mental health professionals or your general practitioner for advice!




American Psychological Association (APA). (n.d.). Therapy. American Psychological Association. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy#:~:text=Psychotherapy%20is%20a%20collaborative%20treatment,is%20objective%2C%20neutral%20and%20nonjudgmental.

National Council of Social Services (NCSS). (2021). Psychology. NCSS. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.ncss.gov.sg/social-service-tribe/careerdetail/psychology

Ng, B. Y. (2021). The Ultimate Guide to seeing a psychiatrist in Singapore (2021). Human. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.human.com.sg/psychiatrist-singapore

Warwick, G. (2020). The differences between a counsellor, psychotherapists, Psychologists & Psychiatrists. Quest Psychology Services. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://questpsychologyservices.co.uk/differences-between-counsellors-psychologists-and-psychiatrists/

Wilson, S. (2022). Counselor vs. Therapist vs. psychologist. Human Services Edu. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.humanservicesedu.org/counselor-vs-psych-vs-therapist/

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