Finding the right medical professional to help treat mental health disorders can be confusing. Usually, your search for the right specialist will lead you to two types of doctors: psychologists and psychiatrists. Both psychologists and psychiatrists understand how the brain processes thoughts, emotions, and feelings and use that information to treat mental illness. But despite what you might think, psychologists and psychiatrists aren’t the same. Even though they both specialize in mental health, the two professions have different credentials and educational requirements. In addition to that, psychologists and psychiatrists have different treatment approaches to mental health challenges and focus on treating certain types of mental illnesses.
What Do Psychologists Do?
Psychologists help people cope with life issues and mental health challenges. When you visit a psychologist, they study the way you think, behave, and relate to other people and your environment. Psychologists also:
- Find patterns that help them understand and predict behavior
- Work with individuals, couples, and families to make desired life changes
- Identify and diagnose mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders
- Develop and carry out treatment plans
- Collaborate with physicians or social workers as necessary
What Do Psychiatrists Do?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who evaluate, diagnose, and treat people living with mental health disorders that range in severity from mild and temporary to severe and chronic. Psychiatrists can also:
- Provide urgent care for a sudden mental illness
- Help you manage long-term mental health conditions
- Provide second opinions and advice to other doctors and health professionals
- Refer you to other health professionals
- Admit you to the hospital when necessary
The Differences Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist
Many people confuse psychologists and psychiatrists with each other because their titles sound similar and they both diagnose and treat mental health conditions, but there are some key differences between the two professions.
1. Education & Training
Psychiatrists Have Medical Degrees, Psychologists Do Not.
Psychologists and psychiatrists are both highly educated and skilled. Psychologists have at least 6 years of university training and supervised experience. Most psychologists have a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or psychology (PsyD) degree. Psychologists that have a Doctorate (Ph.D.) can call themselves “Dr.,” but they do not have degrees in medicine. Clinical psychologists have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors with at least 11 years of training. Psychiatrists begin their education with a medical degree at a university. After that, they spend 1 or 2 years of training as a general doctor before completing at least 5 years of training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists have a doctor of medicine degree (MD) and are required to learn all the systems and functions of the human body, how to perform physical exams, and specific treatments for each medical condition.
2. Authority to Medicate
Psychiatrists Can Prescribe Medicine, Most Psychologists Cannot.
Even though psychologists and psychiatrists treat mental health conditions, most psychologists cannot prescribe medication. However, with some additional qualifications, psychologists in the following 5 states can prescribe medication:
- New Mexico
Psychologists working in the military, Indian Health Service, or in Guam can also prescribe medication. The authority to prescribe medicine is much less restrictive for psychiatrists. Because of their medical degree, psychiatrists, in any state, have the authority to prescribe medication.
Psychologists Focus on Behavior, Psychiatrists Provide a Wide Range of Treatment.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists talk with you about the problems and challenges you’re facing. But their different educational backgrounds allow them to focus on, treat, and approach those issues differently.
Psychologists tend to focus on your behavior patterns. For example, if you’re dealing with anxiety, a psychologist will track your sleeping pattern, the frequency and severity of panic attacks, and the negative thoughts that might be contributing to your high levels of anxiety. Based on what they find, they’ll talk with you, teach you how to change some of those patterns, and help you develop new habits to help relieve and manage anxiety. Their primary way of helping you cope is through psychological treatments and different types of talk therapy.
Psychiatrists also look at your behavior patterns, but they have a stronger understanding of biology and neurochemistry as well. This allows them to provide a wider range of treatment that can include:
- Psychological treatment
- Brain stimulation therapies
- General medical care, including physical examinations, in order to evaluate the effects of any prescribed medication
Psychiatrists also perform medical examinations before providing a diagnosis. For example, a psychiatrist may check for thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies before diagnosing you with depression.
4. Conditions Treated
Psychologists Treat Less Severe Conditions, Psychiatrists Treat More Complex Mental Health Disorders.
Generally, psychologists treat conditions that don’t require medication. These types of conditions can include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, anxiety, and mild cases of depression.
Psychiatrists, on the other hand, tend to treat complex conditions that require medical treatment and psychological evaluations, including:
- Bipolar disorder
- Severe depression
Should I See a Psychologist or Psychiatrist?
If you’re experiencing life challenges and want to work on better understanding your thoughts and behaviors, you might benefit from seeing a psychologist. But if you’re dealing with more complex conditions that generally require medications, you can ask your primary care physician for a referral to see a psychiatrist.
Some conditions, like depression and anxiety, can be treated with a combination of talk therapy and medication, allowing you to visit both a psychologist and psychiatrist. In these types of cases, you may have regular therapy sessions with a psychologist, while a psychiatrist manages your medical treatment.
Regardless of the type of specialist you choose, make sure that the person tending to your mental health has:
- Experience treating your type of mental health condition
- An approach, personality, and manner that makes you feel comfortable
- Availability and open appointments
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Psychologists and psychiatrists seem like similar professionals, but they actually perform quite different functions related to mental health. Many people debate which position is “better.” However, “better” is a relative term. In order to understand which might be better for certain things, we need to look at the differences between the two.
While both psychologists and psychiatrists work with people to resolve mental, emotional and behavioral issues, they each approach methodology and practice in different ways. For starters, psychiatrists are doctors with medical degrees; psychologists hold doctorate degrees from non-medical institutions. The following outlines some other major differences to help determine which position might be better for certain situations.
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Both psychologists and psychiatrists will spend many years in school followed by years of residency programs and internships. A psychologist completes one of two doctoral degrees, either a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or a Ph.D. in Psychology, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. While some school psychologists might earn a master’s degree, most psychologists must hold a doctorate in order to practice in their field, particularly if they want to practice a subspecialty like clinical or forensic psychology.
Psychiatrists, according to the Bureau, must complete medical school and earn a medical degree. In fact the Bureau recognizes psychiatry under the same classification as Physicians and Surgeons in its Occupational Outlook Handbook. As such, psychiatrists must complete the same educational and training requirements that doctors and surgeons complete.
Job Outlook & Salary
According to the Bureau, psychologists and psychiatrists share similar occupational outlooks. Over the next decade, both are projected to increase on a faster basis that other occupations, with psychologists at 22% and psychiatrists at 24%. The salary changes drastically between the two occupations. In 2010, the average salary for a psychologist was $68,640, whereas psychiatrists, under the blanket salary of physicians and surgeons, earned equal to or more than $166,400 in 2010. Because they are medical doctors, psychiatrists earn more money on average than psychologists.
Both positions offer benefits to both patients and practitioners, and determining which one is “better” still depends largely on how you look at the question. Do you want to know which would make a better career or which one you should seek for personal help?
In terms of a career, becoming a psychiatrist offers a better salary, but psychologists might be more employable simply because of the subspecialties they enter. The Bureau estimated that in 2010, over 100,000 jobs were available in psychology. Because they list psychiatrists under physicians and surgeons, the number of jobs was over 600,000 in 2010, but this number includes the entire category of physicians and surgeons.
If you need mental help for yourself or a friend, then choosing which professional is “better” becomes more difficult and depends on the severity of the situation. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication in addition to offering therapy, whereas most psychologists can only provide non-medical therapy. Determining which professional is better depends on a variety of factors because each offers something valuable to those they serve.