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Psychologist vs Psychotherapist: How They Differ (Canada)

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Psychologist vs Psychotherapist: How They Differ (Canada)

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Written by 
Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated: 
August 28, 2023
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There are over 70 professional titles in Canada for those working in a “counselling profession.” This includes everything from career counsellors to psychologists. It’s not surprising that, of the millions of Canadians who reported they are in need of mental health care, the number one reason they said their needs were unmet was because they didn’t know where to go.

There is no one-size-fits-all type of therapy, so finding the right therapist for you is so important. That’s a lot of pressure when you set out to look for mental health support. Where do you start, and who do you choose? 

If your understanding of therapy is from popular culture, you might think of a medical or rehabilitation clinic, or the “psychiatrist couch” with a Freud-like professional taking notes as their patient shares their deepest and darkest thoughts.

There are some truths in those stereotypes.

In Canada there are four main types of mental health professionals governed by regulations: psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists (or counselling therapists), and social workers. Each has a different level of education, licensing and scope of practice. 

It’s unlikely you would seek the help of a psychiatrist on your own for counselling therapy. Psychiatrists are medical doctors in the mental health field, so they would most likely provide illness diagnosis and drug intervention – i.e. they assess and diagnose, and are licensed to prescribe medication. They are likely one part of a mental health plan.

The image of the “couch” is most likely referring to psychotherapy or counselling therapy. This involves a trained professional applying therapeutic techniques to help individuals, couples, families or groups through emotional or behavioural challenges. There are a variety of ways they do this: this could be psychoanalysis/psychodynamics (uncovering root issues), cognitive behavioural therapy (how thoughts, feelings and behaviours connect), somatic therapy (working through emotions and how they affect the body), or other forms of talk therapy (many types of therapies that focus on communication between the client and therapist). 

These therapies are based on training and education in the field psychology – understanding how and why humans behave, think and feel the way we do, while helping people understand, manage or change their thinking or behaviour.

So, what’s the difference between a psychologist and psychotherapist?

The importance of understanding the differences between types of therapists

When someone is in mental distress, making the decision to seek professional help might be guided by a family doctor or another type of referral. When you’re seeking help on your own, it’s important to understand your needs and to gather a baseline understanding of how these professionals operate so you can make more informed decisions.

For example, one important distinction between psychologists vs. psychotherapists is diagnosis. Psychologists (psychiatrists and some clinically-certified social workers) can offer this. If you’re seeking assessment and diagnosis, you’ll need to go to the right kind of professional. 

You may not get it right on the first try – it can take some time to find the right kind of professional to work with. It’s incredibly personal. People are complex and there are many factors to consider when looking for the right therapist fit. Their education and training, as well as the demographic they typically work with, the type of therapy they specialize in and the techniques they use can be helpful to explore. 

When looking for a therapist on First Session, there are filters for everything from location to clientele to modalities (techniques) to help with this search. You can watch videos of each counsellor to get a sense of their area of specialization, their approach to therapy, their demeanour and manner, all of which can be very helpful in finding a good fit.

Defining the Roles

Defining psychologist vs. psychotherapist comes down to the education and background, licensing, and the type of work each might focus on – research, teaching, one-on-one therapy, etc.

In Canada, a psychologist is a mental health professional who holds a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology. They can assess, diagnose and help people through mental health challenges through psychotherapy or counselling therapy. They will often contribute to their field through ongoing research and analysis. They likely specialize in specific areas of psychology, like neuropsychology (brain science and psychology), child psychology, addictions or trauma, for example. They might work with individuals, or in larger functions like in government, schools, universities or hospitals.

Psychotherapists, by comparison, will hold either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree. They are more likely to be focused on providing counselling or therapeutic support to individuals, couples, families or other groups dealing with emotional or behavioural issues. This could include understanding thoughts and feelings, and providing coping strategies to help people improve their mental wellbeing. They’ll be trained in certain therapy modalities (techniques) and their approaches could include cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic therapy, dialectical therapy, or others. While each therapist has a suite of specializations, they’ll still most likely tailor these approaches to the needs and goals established with each client. 

There can be crossover for these professionals. A psychotherapist could have an educational background or licensing in psychology, social work or other types of therapy, and a psychologist might offer psychotherapy.

To dive a little deeper into the distinctions between them, it’s helpful to understand the key differences in their scopes of practice as regulated by Canadian and provincial law.

Key Differences between a Psychologist and a Psychotherapist

In Canada, psychologists and psychotherapists are regulated by provincial and territorial governments. That means those governments establish a Controlled Act that outlines the legal framework for practicing in this field, including education and training requirements. Then, organizations in each province called colleges or associations oversee those laws as the licensing body for the profession. 

For example, psychotherapist is a regulated title in Ontario and those professionals are registered and licensed by the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (CRPO). 

Importantly, the psychotherapist title is not consistently regulated across the country. Some provinces regulate the title counselling therapist, some regulate the title psychotherapist, and some provinces have no regulations at all for these professionals. In those cases, there are usually large self-regulating associations, such as the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) which oversees Certified Canadian Counsellors.

Here’s an overview of the regulations and scope of practice for psychologists vs. psychotherapists. 


  • Education and training: Typically 6-10 years of university study in psychology. Depending on where they practice, minimum education requirements range from a master’s to PhD. Training and education would include hundreds-to-thousands of hours of supervised practice and exams to be eligible for licensing and registration.
  • Licensing and Regulation: Psychologists are regulated by provincial or territorial bodies. The only jurisdiction without a body overseeing psychologists is the Yukon. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, a member-driven professional association, psychologists must declare their speciality areas to their regulatory bodies. 
  • Scope of Practice: Psychologists are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, trauma, and other conditions. Their area of focus would be in evidence-based psychological research and applications. They can conduct psychological assessments and provide counselling therapy or psychotherapy. 


  • Education and Training: Psychotherapists in Canada hold a master’s degree in counselling, psychology or social work. They may have a PhD level education and additional certification but it is not required.  
  • Licensing and Regulation: Psychotherapists are regulated at the provincial and territorial level. Some jurisdictions regulate the title of psychotherapist, some the title of counselling therapist, and some do not have regulations in place or they are in progress. 
  • Scope of Practice: Psychotherapists are most likely primarily focused on providing therapy and counseling services. They work with individuals, couples, or groups to address emotional, psychological, or behavioral issues. Psychotherapists cannot provide a mental health diagnosis themselves (unless they are a licensed psychologist), though they can provide emotional or behavioural therapy to help support a range of mental health challenges and diagnosed illnesses. 

Always check the regulated title for psychotherapists and other mental health professionals where you live, and check who the regulatory body or college is in your province or territory.

Essential Skills for Psychotherapists and Psychologists

The benefit of working with someone who is licensed and regulated is that they are operating under a set of standards for conduct and ethics. They have been supervised and have responsibilities for ongoing development to maintain their licenses and keep their practice up-to-date. 

Outside of those kinds of requirements, there are some common skills you can expect a therapist to have, as someone whose profession is centred on understanding and helping people through emotional and behavioural difficulties.

  • Empathy: Both psychologists and psychotherapists are trained to be aware and sensitive to their clients’ emotions, perspectives, and experiences. The benefit of talking to a professional is having an unbiased and objective person to help you through tough situations. Empathy allows them to see the world through your eyes without judgement or personal attachment. Feeling like your therapist is empathetic toward you is one green flag that they are a good fit. They should not, however, become emotionally invested in your experiences; this could pose a problem in their objectivity.

  • Communication: Part of the psychologist or psychotherapist's job is to effectively listen to their clients, comprehend complex situations and communicate their insights and feedback clearly and compassionately to their clients. Many therapeutic techniques fall into the category of “talk therapy” – back-and-forth communication between a client and therapist through difficult issues and topics. A mental health professional will ask you curious and probing questions to help you describe your experiences and feelings in new ways. You might also notice they adapt their communication style to suit your needs. They will be active listeners, repeating information back to you and repeating details to reinforce they are present and listening.
  • Critical thinking and assessment: While psychologists can assess and diagnose mental illness, both psychologists and psychotherapists will be applying critical thinking skills and assessing their clients’ responses. Psychologists may be working in research and are deeply analytical of human (or animal!) behaviour. They will look at it objectively, engage in peer reviews of their work and reevaluate information continuously to come to new understandings of the human mind. While working with clients, psychotherapists will be trained to look for cues or presenting issues that may inform their approach or technique, or in case there is a need to refer to a psychologist or psychotherapist.

Concluding Thoughts: Choosing the Right Professional for Your Needs

Understanding the difference between psychologist vs. psychotherapist is one step to finding the support you need, and the most appropriate type of professional, particularly if you are looking for a diagnosis. 

Here is a quick recap the primary types of therapists in Canada and their scope of practice:

  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in mental health and illness. They are the only mental health professional licensed to prescribe medication as part of their care. They sometimes offer counselling therapy.
  • Psychologists are educated at a master’s or PhD level in psychology and tend to work in a speciality area (e.g. neuropsychology, child psychology, etc.). They can assess and diagnose problems with behaviour and thinking. They might work with people or organizations (schools, corporations, governments) and will participate in ongoing research, practice, teaching and field work, which could include one-on-one counselling therapy.

  • Psychotherapists hold a PhD or master’s degree. They are most likely to primarily focus on providing counselling therapy to individuals, couples, families or groups, and likely specialize in a few different modalities for therapy. In some provinces and territories, they are regulated under the title of counselling therapist, and some provinces are not yet regulated for this kind of professional – in that case look for reputable self-governing bodies or work with a licensed professional who offers counselling, like a social worker.

  • Social workers hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work and can specialize in support, advocacy, or public policy to help address the wellbeing of individuals or communities. They can offer one-on-one counselling therapy, or work with families or groups, they might work across broader communities, within government or in clinical settings.

While knowing the nuances of mental health professional titles, it’s important to remember that, ultimately, the number one predictor of success in therapy is the relationship between a client and practitioner. 

When looking for a therapist on First Session, try watching the therapist videos to get a sense of their style, poise, tone of voice, and their approach to their practice. Use and choose filters and look for specializations and common subjects to find someone who might be a great fit for you. Many practitioners offer free therapy consultations, which is a great way to speak with a few professionals before booking a full session.

If you’re interested in learning more about mental health professionals, modalities and specializations in First Session’s Therapy 101 Guide, read real client therapy stories, or sign up for First Session’s Therapy Masterclass, a 6-day email course to get started.

About the author
Nicole Laoutaris

First Session

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