What’s the difference among a therapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist? For many people these three terms are used interchangeably — but they shouldn’t be. While therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists often work together closely to improve a patient’s mental health, they are distinct professions. Here is some information to help you understand these different medical professions, and help you determine which one is right for your health needs.
What is a psychologist?
A psychologist specializes in the study of behaviors and mental processes. This includes emotional and cognitive processes, how people interact with their environments, and how they interact with other people.
Psychologists help people learn to understand and handle different life problems and mental health issues.
A psychologist diagnoses and treats mental disorders, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. They may provide treatment for chronic problems or acute problems, and they can do so in an individual, family, or group setting. The most common type of treatment used by psychologists is psychotherapy, or talk therapy.
Psychologists help patients handle stressful events, beat addictions, or manage illnesses. People may seek counseling or treatments from psychologists for things such as traumatic experiences, a death in the family, or long-term anxiety.
One of the most notable difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that psychologists are not medical doctors. They do not have a medical degree and are not trained in general medicine or in prescribing medications.
Practicing psychologists must earn an undergraduate major, a masters, and a doctorate in psychology. Additionally, most states require a two-year internship. Practicing psychologists may earn a PhD or PsyD.
What is a psychiatrist?
Like psychologists, psychiatrists specialize in the study, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of emotional, mental, behavioral, and developmental issues. Psychiatrists diagnose mental disorders and focus on chemical imbalances in the brain. They can assess both the mental and physical effects of a disorder.
However, unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are medical doctors, or physicians, with a degree in medicine. Psychiatrists must complete an undergraduate and medical degree, plus a four-year residency in psychiatry. They may then choose to complete a fellowship in a sub-specialty.
As medical doctors psychiatrists can prescribe medication, and while they may provide some counseling, a psychiatrist might refer a patient to a psychologist or therapist for additional counseling or therapy.
What is a therapist?
In Arkansas, Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers provide mental health services. Therapists require master degrees and approval of their licensing boards to practice in the mental health field. Therapists provide mental health diagnosis and develop a treatment plan. Therapists work in offices, hospitals, treatment centers, and group homes. There are many different types of therapy such as play therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, animal-assisted therapy, dialectal behavioral therapy, and many others. Therapists cannot recommend or order medications, but they can refer you for evaluation for medication or other treatments.
When you begin therapy your therapist may ask what brings you to therapy, your concerns, and any symptoms you experience. Your therapist may ask you to complete some questionnaires and learn about your childhood, education, work history, current relationships, and long-term goals. Your therapist will then set goals with you and work to help you achieve them. Therapy can be short or long term depending on the problem/diagnosis and its severity. Therapy can be done in an individual, family, couple, or group setting.
Northwest Arkansas Psychiatry
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists aren’t one and the same, but they often work together closely to help diagnose and treat mental disorders. Together, these mental health professionals can provide the best possible care for mental health or behavioral issues.
A psychiatric evaluation helps determine which mental healthcare professional is right for your specific health needs. Sometimes medication is the best treatment, and sometimes therapy services or counseling will be your best option.
Northwest Arkansas Psychiatry offers compassionate and comprehensive mental health care for children, adolescents, and adults in Northwest Arkansas. The NWA Psychiatry team includes two psychiatrists and a mental health nurse practitioner.
Northwest Arkansas Psychiatry is currently accepting new patients. A referral from your primary care provider is not necessary unless required by your insurance. Call 479-571-6363 to request an appointment with a mental health professional in Northwest Arkansas, or learn more about NWA Psychiatry.
The three main differences between psychiatrists and psychologists are:
Psychiatrists are medical doctors, psychologists are not.
- Psychiatrists prescribe medication, psychologists can’t.
- Psychiatrists diagnose illness, manage treatment and provide a range of therapies for complex and serious mental illness. Psychologists focus on providing psychotherapy (talk therapy) to help patients.
Many people get psychiatrists and psychologists confused with each other.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists understand how the brain works, our emotions, feelings and thoughts. Both can treat mental illness with psychological treatments (talking therapies).
However, psychiatrists attend medical school and become medical doctors before doing specialist training in mental health. Because they are doctors, psychiatrists understand the links between mental and physical problems. They can also prescribe medications.
To go into it in some more detail, the main differences relate to:
- treatments provided
- conditions treated
- getting an appointment.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors with at least 11 years of training – usually more.
They first do a medical degree at university. Next they spend at least 1 or 2 years training as a general doctor.
They then complete at least 5 years training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
Psychologists have at least 6 years of university training and supervised experience.
They may also hold a Masters or Doctorate level qualification in psychology. If they have a Doctorate (PhD) a psychologist can call themselves ‘Dr’, but they are not medical doctors.
Clinical psychologists have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
Psychiatrists can provide a wide range of treatments, according to the particular problem and what will work best. These include:
- general medical care, including checking your physical health and the effects of medication
- psychological treatments
- brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Psychologists focus on providing psychological treatments.
Psychiatrists tend to treat people who need their medical, psychological and social needs considered.
These are usually people with complex conditions, for example:
- severe depression
- bipolar disorder.
Someone who has attempted suicide or has suicidal thoughts will usually be seen by a psychiatrist.
Psychologists are more likely to see people with conditions that can be helped effectively with psychological treatments. This might include behavioural problems, learning difficulties, depression and anxiety.
Getting an appointment
As with all medical specialists, to see a psychiatrist you need a referral from your GP (family doctor).
To see a psychologist you don’t need a referral. However, in Australia a GP can refer you to a psychologist as part of a Mental Health Treatment Plan.
There are around 4000 psychiatrists working across Australia and New Zealand, while there are about 27,000 registered psychologists.
Psychiatrists and psychologists often work together. A psychiatrist might make an initial assessment and diagnosis, then refer you to a psychologist for ongoing psychological treatment (talking therapy).
Psychiatrists and psychologists also work together in hospitals as part of mental health teams.
Who should I see?
If you are unsure whether you should see a psychiatrist or a psychologist, talk to your GP. They can give you advice about whether a psychiatrist or a psychologist is right for you.
It will depend on your unique situation and the type of treatment you need. Some people might see both.
More about first steps to get help
More about psychiatrists
Psychiatry and psychology are overlapping professions. Practitioners in both — psychiatrists and psychologists — are mental health professionals. Their area of expertise is the mind — and the way it affects behavior and well-being. They often work together to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental illness. And both are committed to helping people stay mentally well.
But there are differences between psychiatry and psychology. And people sometimes find those differences confusing, especially when they are looking for help. To make matters even more confusing, psychiatrists and psychologists aren’t the only mental health professionals you can choose from. There are mental health counselors, social workers, nurses and nurse practitioners, and others who deal with issues of mental health. And if you consider the multiple approaches to treatment, ranging from counseling to various forms of psychotherapy, the whole mental health system begins to look like a maze that’s nearly impossible to navigate.
But here’s a guide you can use to help you make your way through that maze.
What is the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists?
– Trained medical doctors who later specialise in the field
– Can prescribe and review medication
– Often consult and oversee a mental health team
– Usually work with people with severe mental health disorders
– Primarily use the biological/medical model of mental illness
– Train as non-medical doctors by completing extensive clinical experience and completing an academic doctorate
– Cannot prescribe medication
– Integrate different models for treatment:
– Biopsychosocial (biological, psychological and social)
– Train across different types of therapy before specialising
How are they similar?
– Use diagnostic systems to cluster symptoms and create an effective treatment plan
– Can perform assessments for mental health conditions
– Treat mental illnesses of people of any background or age
– Understand the link between the brain and emotions and physical sensations
– Create a well-rounded view of clients
– Multidisciplinary teams
– Psychiatrist might initially assess then allocate to psychologist for treatment
– Manage risks
Provide holistic care:
Treat a wide range of people with complex conditions:
– Bipolar Affective Disorder
– Personality Disorders
– Anyone suffering with suicidal ideations
– Behavioural Problems
Which one should I see?
– Depends on the situation
– Depends on type of treatment
– May see both
– May have initial consultation with psychiatrist
– Psychologist may initiate and continue treatment plan
– Whoever you are comfortable with
– Ensure the process is fully explained to you before starting with a new clinician