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Jul 28, 2021
5 min read

Psychologist vs. psychiatrist: what’s the difference?

Both psychologists and psychiatrists treat mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and addiction, but they use different strategies. Psychologists focus on psychotherapy, while psychiatrists can prescribe medications. Whether you are considering seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or both, it’s important to know the differences between them so that you can make the best decision for yourself or a loved one.

felix gussonemarie hasty

Reviewed by Felix Gussone, MD

Written by Marie Hasty, BSN

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

The need for mental health professionals has never been greater. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of mental health problems has risen significantly (Nochaiwong, 2021). Psychologists and psychiatrists both work to help people who are suffering from mental health issues. If you are distressed and considering seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist, you should know that it is never wrong to seek help from a professional.

What is a psychologist?

Psychologists are social scientists. Some have a doctoral degree in clinical psychology (PsyD), philosophy (Ph.D.), or education (EdD). Many have certifications in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is considered the gold standard in psychotherapy (David, 2018; National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020). CBT is an umbrella term for therapeutic strategies that have proven to be effective in helping you shake distorted, unhelpful thinking patterns thought to cause a wide range of mental health challenges (Hayes, 2020). 

Psychologists who practice psychotherapy are called clinical psychologists. In most states, they are typically not licensed to prescribe medications (American Psychological Association, 2017). If your psychologist or therapist feels you could benefit from psychiatric drugs, they should give you a referral to see a psychiatrist. 

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors, meaning they attended medical school and have an M.D. (doctor of medicine) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine). They’ve had extensive training to evaluate, diagnose and treat mental health conditions using medications, therapy, and other strategies. They’ve gone through at least four years of residency training after completing medical school. States license physicians to practice, and they may also get certified by the Board of Neurology and Psychiatry (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020).

Psychiatrists often perform physical and psychological tests to diagnose and treat people. Before prescribing medication, they usually order blood work, take vital signs, and take scans of the brain. Some medications, such as medications to treat schizophrenia, require ongoing bloodwork and evaluation (Cohn, 2006)

Differences between psychologists and psychiatrists

The main differences between the two are their background and approach to treatment. They bring different perspectives to clinical practice, given their education and credentials. A psychologist’s social lens gives them a unique perspective during therapy. CBT is the most common psychotherapy and is considered the best treatment strategy amongst psychologists (David, 2018). Psychologists tend to see more patients with anxiety and personality disorders (Pingitore, 2002).

Because of their medical background, psychiatrists can prescribe medications for those who need more than talk therapy alone. Psychiatrists often treat people in psychiatric hospitals who are suffering from chronic or acute mental health issues. Psychiatrists tend to see more people with psychotic diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Pingitore, 2002). 

When to see a psychologist or psychiatrist

There are many good reasons to seek help from a mental health expert. Maybe you have a personal or family history of mental illness. Or you could have experienced recent trauma or change. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed. If you or a loved one are feeling any of the following, a psychologist or psychiatrist could help:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Mood swings
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Disruptive or disturbing thoughts
  • Problems sleeping
  • Anxiety

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, know that you are not alone. The most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders worldwide are depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and sleep disorders (Turkozer, 2020). 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many practices moved to an online model. Both psychologists and psychiatrists who had been hesitant to use video or phone therapy had to adapt. The upshot is that mental health professionals are more accessible for patients now than ever before (Shore, 2013). Teletherapy can also be cheaper and is often the best option for people living in remote areas (Langarizadeh, 2017; Markowitz, 2020).

Choosing a psychiatrist or psychologist

It may be hard to decide whether to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. Unless it’s an emergency, it makes sense to tell your primary care provider about what you are feeling or experiencing. Based on their assessment, they can help you choose between a psychologist or psychiatrist or both. They should also recommend you to someone they know and trust (Lokko, 2015). 

The relationship between you and your mental health professional is a strong predictor of successful therapy (Arnow, 2013). Therefore, it’s important that you don’t just commit to working with the first psychiatrist or psychologist you find. If you notice qualities such as warmth, compassion, empathy, openness, and unconditional positive regard, they could be a good fit (Carey, 2012).

When choosing a mental health professional, it’s also wise to evaluate their background. How long have they been practicing? Do they believe in an emphasis on therapy, medicine, or both? All of these are good questions to ask in your first session with a mental health professional. 

In summary, both psychologists and psychiatrists are experts in the human mind, but they bring different skill sets. Psychologists are experts in the studies of thoughts and behaviors. They use psychotherapy to help patients manage mental illness and distress. Psychiatrists are medical doctors trained in physiology and pharmacology. They may practice talk therapy, but most prescribe medications for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental health conditions. Psychologists and psychiatrists often work in tandem to develop treatment plans.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). What is psychiatry? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry-menu
  2. American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/psychotherapy- professionals
  3. Arnow, B. A., Steidtmann, D., Blasey, C., Manber, R., Constantino, M. J., Klein, D. N., et al. (2013). The relationship between the therapeutic alliance and treatment outcome in two distinct psychotherapies for chronic depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(4), 627–638. doi: 10.1037/a0031530. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23339536/
  4. Carey, T. A., Kelly, R. E., Mansell, W., & Tai, S. J. (2012). What’s therapeutic about the therapeutic relationship? A hypothesis for practice informed by Perceptual Control Theory. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 5(2-3), 47–59. doi: 10.1017/s1754470x12000037. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-cognitive-behaviour-therapist/article/whats-therapeutic-about-the-therapeutic-relationship-a-hypothesis-for-practice-informed-by-perceptual-control-theory/98CF8D06E5A621F162361D3C2D1AEDBD
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