Psychologist and Psychiatrist: 3 Best Differences

Stress affects mental health and is caused due to frustrations, conflicts between choices, or societal pressures. Once stress starts affecting a person’s mental health, they have to get help from trained mental health professionals. But it is confusing for anyone about which mental health professional to contact, a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

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What is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

Psychologist and Psychiatrist both sound similar and are also mental health professionals who diagnose and treat the mental conditions of individuals1. Psychology is the study of the human mind and its effect on their behavior. Psychologists and psychiatrists are two divisions that put psychology into practice to provide mental health services.2

Let us understand clearly about psychiatrists and psychologists under different categories.

Why are Psychiatrists and Psychologists Thought to be Synonymous?

Most people confuse between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, as their titles sound similar. And both psychologists and psychiatrists are experts in the field of diagnosing and treating mental illnesses3 of people. They do different types of work or have different approaches to improving mental health4, and they are the dominant professions in the field of psychology.

Psychologists and psychiatrists are not the same, but they both work closely to help in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. They provide assistance to improve behavioral processes and mental health. Psychologists and psychiatrists use psychological treatments like talk therapies. They both know our emotions, thoughts, feelings, and how our brain works.

Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior. Psychiatrists and psychologists are both licensed in their areas of practice. Even though they both improve mental health conditions, their approaches to mental illnesses differ. In some cases, psychologists and psychiatrists work together to help individuals.

In What Aspects do a Psychiatrist and Psychologist Differ?

Even though psychologists and psychiatrists have a psychological background, their methods of treating mental illness5 or improving mental health differ.

Any individual who practices psychology is known as a psychologist. A psychologist studies the behavior of a person in different social settings. Any individual’s cognitive processes, emotional stability, and behavior are taken into consideration by psychologists.

A psychologist is a mental health professional who focuses on improving an individual’s behavior by using psychotherapy or talk therapy to lessen emotional suffering. Psychologists focus on psychological testing and psychotherapy techniques.

On the other hand, psychiatry is considered a branch of medicine that focuses mainly on diagnosing and treating mental and emotional disorders of individuals. Psychiatrists prescribe medication to help people who have mental health disorders.

Psychologists and psychiatrists can treat mental disorders. Psychiatrists are medical doctors. Hence they use medical treatment. While psychologists treat mental illness using treatment methods like play therapy, cognitive therapy. Psychiatrists undergo clinical training and earn a doctoral degree.

Let us understand different aspects in which a psychologist and a psychiatrist have key differences.

  • Educational qualification
  • Method of treatment used to treat illnesses
  • Career options available

Psychiatrist and a Psychologist in Medical School – Educational Background

Psychiatrists and psychologists need different educational qualifications, and they undergo distinct training processes to treat mental health problems.

Psychiatrists are medical practitioners. Psychiatrists have to attend medical school to gain a medical degree in either MD, Doctor of Medicine, or DO, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Hence, they have to go to medical school after they graduate.

After attending medical school, they have to take a written exam to gain a license to practice in their chosen state. Then they are required to practice psychiatry as an extensive training under the supervision of senior doctors in any hospital. During this practice program, they gain the knowledge of diagnosing and treating a mental illness. Psychiatrists should renew their certification of practice every ten years.

On the other hand, psychologists also undergo medical training after their graduation. They undergo doctoral-level training in that medical program. After that, they have to gain a degree in either Ph.D., Doctor of Philosophy, or a PsyD, Doctor of Psychology. It takes almost four to five years to complete these degrees and to earn a certificate.

After gaining the degree, they must complete a program to work with people for one or two years. Psychologists also should take an exam such as the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology to get a license to practice in their chosen state. Only after the issue of license, psychology students are referred to as mental health professionals.

Psychiatrists and Psychologists Improving Mental Health – Treatment Approach

Both psychiatrists and psychologists know about cognitive processes like emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Both practicing psychiatrists and practicing psychologists treat people with mental illness using psychological therapies.

As psychiatrists are medical doctors, they understand the link between mental illness and physical ailments. Hence psychiatrists can prescribe medications. The treatments provided by psychiatrists are diverse and depend on the type of mental disorder. A practicing psychiatrist uses the following types of treatment for any psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder:

  • Brain stimulation therapies such as ECT(electroconvulsive therapy), Light therapy.
  • Psychiatrists also prescribe medication such as anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, sedatives, usually along with the therapies.
  • Psychiatrists also concentrate on the general health care of the patient.
  • Talk therapy with the individual, group, or family.
  • Psychiatrists also use psychotherapies to make a lasting effect of the medications in use for the patient.

While psychologists, on the other hand, cannot prescribe medications because they are not authorized to do it. Most of them focus on psychological treatments. Psychologists are effective in treating behavioral problems, learning difficulties, anxiety and depression. Psychologists recommend therapies and exercises best suited for an individual’s mild mental illness and emotional challenges. Psychologists mostly use talk therapy which can be individual, group therapy, or family therapy. A few of them are below:

Psychiatrists as medical doctors and psychologists as mental health professionals – career

Just like their differences in practicing, psychiatrists and psychologists work in different settings. Psychologists and psychiatrists serve distinct purposes, as their practices are dissimilar.

Psychiatrists can work in any of the following places:

  • private practice
  • clinics
  • general hospitals
  • psychiatric hospitals
  • university medical centers
  • courts and prisons
  • military settings
  • rehabilitation centers and community mental health centers
  • research centers

As mentioned above, psychiatrists can set up their workplace to practice on their own. Psychiatrists work in prisons to help prisoners overcome their emotional issues and any mild symptoms, if any, of personality disorders.

They can also work in clinics or hospitals as nurse practitioners or mental health professionals, treating patients with mental disorders. Psychiatrists can work in research centers to continue their research in their interested area of the field.

Psychiatrists can work in rehabilitation centers to help people who have been through substance abuse. Psychiatrists treat mental disorders after running medical laboratory tests. There are subfields in psychiatry that only deal with a particular group, such as geriatric psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, adolescent psychiatry. Psychiatrists can treat anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and other behavioral disorders. As psychiatrists earn a doctoral degree, they are capable of medication management.

On the other hand, psychologists can work in any of the following workplaces:

  • private clinics
  • mental health clinics
  • physician hospitals
  • prisons
  • government agencies
  • schools, colleges, and universities
  • sports department
  • Business or non-profit organizations
  • research

So, it is clear that psychologists also can do independent practice by setting up their private clinics. They can work as a clinical psychologist, school psychologists, healthcare providers, family therapists. They can also work as a primary care physician, provider, or a primary care doctor. Psychologists can provide medical advice to improve mental health but are prohibited from prescribing medication.

Psychologists treat mental health conditions using talk therapy. Psychologists treat mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, behavioral disorders, and personality disorders. Psychologists run psychological tests to examine an individual and can refer patients to psychiatrists if needed.

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

As mentioned above, both psychologists and psychiatrists do research, but the areas and their perspectives change. Psychologists can do independent practice. They can help people in any mental hospitals or physician offices to provide necessary therapies to the needed. Psychologists also can work in business, in bringing efficiency in the personnel. Licensed professional counselors in the psychology field improve mental processes and thereby enhancing human behavior. Psychiatrists mainly deal with disorders of mental health, whereas a psychologist also performs psychological tests.

Psychology vs. Psychiatry

Psychology and psychiatry are two major areas in the subject of mental health. Whereas psychology, having its origin from philosophy, is mostly focused on the behavior and mind. But psychiatrists use their clinical experience to help individuals by treating mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication and provide psychotherapies, but they would most likely refer psychologists for additional counseling.

Read more from us here.

  1. Druss, Benjamin G., et al. “Understanding disability in mental and general medical conditions.” American Journal of Psychiatry 157.9 (2000): 1485-1491. ↩︎
  2. Abuse, Substance. “Mental health services administration.” Results from the 2.013 (2013): 55-68. ↩︎
  3. Taylor, Edward H. Assessing, diagnosing, and treating serious mental disorders: A bioecological approach. Oxford University Press, 2014. ↩︎
  4. Kelly, Claire M., Anthony F. Jorm, and Annemarie Wright. “Improving mental health literacy as a strategy to facilitate early intervention for mental disorders.” Medical Journal of Australia 187.S7 (2007): S26-S30. ↩︎
  5. Day, Kenneth. Treating mental illness and behavior disorders in children and adults with mental retardation. American Psychiatric Pub, 2008. ↩︎

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Dhavala Sree

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