Mental health professionals

We explain the difference between psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors.
Learn more



It’s estimated one in five Australians has suffered from a mental health problem in the past 12 months, and almost one in two will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. 

Whether you’re floundering for purpose and direction, having relationship problems or suffering serious health issues based on drug and alcohol abuse, there are many professionals who can help.

We explain the differences between:

This article also explains How to choose a mental health therapist, and other options available.

For more information about Health practitioners, see General health.

For problems such as anxiety, stress, depression, grief or difficulties with coping, your first port of call could be your GP, who in turn may choose to refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist or another mental health practitioner. This referral may be part of a GP Mental Health Treatment Plan – see Better Access scheme.

The alternative is to seek the help of a psychologist or counsellor yourself, which in fact is what many people do. So when you’re feeling under siege and overwhelmed, who can you turn to for help and what should you look for?


A psychiatrist is a qualified medical doctor with additional training and qualifications to become a specialist in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and emotional problems. 

In addition to talking therapies, psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication to treat people and have specialised knowledge of mental health disorders caused by biological changes in the brain, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s dementia and delirium.

To see a psychiatrist you’ll need a referral from your GP. Ask your doctor if they think talking to a psychiatrist would be appropriate and useful – they might suggest a psychologist or counsellor is a better option. If your doctor feels you could benefit from talking to a psychiatrist, they may well bring it up with you first.


Becoming a doctor requires five or six years of university study followed by 12 months as an intern in a general hospital. This is followed by at least another year in a hospital as a Resident Medical Officer. 

Postgraduate training in psychiatry, conducted by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, takes at least five years, during which time doctors work under supervision in hospitals and community clinics with children, families, adults and the elderly on a full range of psychiatric problems. 

Experience and competence are tested throughout the training process.


Costs vary greatly depending upon whether you see a psychiatrist through a public health service, such as a community health centre, or privately. 

Medicare rebates are available, though out-of-pocket expenses may apply if the doctor doesn’t bulk-bill. Make sure you ask about costs and billing when you make your first appointment.


Psychologists deal with everything from depression, stress, anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts, to improving relationships and personal growth. 

The professional title is restricted to psychologists who are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency via the Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA).

Psychologists aim to change the behaviour and thought processes of their patients, teaching them skills to function better and improve their quality of life without the use of medication. A typical patient undergoes short-term treatment in a series of four to 10 sessions.

Sometimes a single session will suffice, while other patients will need long-term treatment and support. The psychologist should give you an indication of how many sessions will be required at your first meeting.


Psychologists undergo an accredited four-year university degree, and after two years of postgraduate supervised practice can be registered with the PsyBA. 

Clinical psychologists have an additional two-year postgraduate Masters degree (which also entails supervision), and while they may charge more, they can offer a higher Medicare rebate (where applicable).


The Australian Psychological Society recommends fees of $119 for up to half an hour or $218 for one hour, however it’s up to the individual practitioner. 

Current Medicare rebates under the Better Access initiative are $83.25 per session for a psychologist and $122.15 per session for a clinical psychologist, and while some may bulk-bill, others may charge a gap fee, so check what the out-of-pocket costs will be.

There’s no Medicare rebate if you see a psychologist without a referral, though your private health insurance extras cover may offer a rebate – check with your fund, as benefits are sometimes very limited. 

Your private health insurance may also cover any extra sessions you require above and beyond those allowed under Better Access.



Sign up to our free

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments