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Psychologist vs psychiatrist for depression and anxiety

You think you may be depressed. Over the past few weeks, you’ve been listless. You’re not eating much — and you are sleeping even less. You may not have the energy for the things you usually enjoy doing. You can’t be bothered to return the phone calls of concerned friends and family. These may be symptoms of depression. 

Young woman laying in bed feeling worried

You may also feel signs of nervousness, a sense of danger or panic, and you may struggle to think about anything other than your current worries. These may be symptoms of anxiety, and they may be holding you back and keeping you from social interaction. 

Regardless if you think you may suffer from depression or anxiety, it may be time to consult a medical professional. 

You might ask: “what kind of professional should I consult if I think I may have depression and/or anxiety? A psychologist or psychiatrist? And what is the difference?” 

Psychologist vs. PsychiatristButton with GeneSight logo and text learn more about the GeneSight test

When determining what kind of healthcare provider might meet your mental health needs, it is important to understand what services and treatments each professional offers. Psychiatrists and psychologists are not the only healthcare providers that can help with anxiety disorders and depression — primary care providers, nurse practitioners and others may also be able to help. 


According to the American Psychological Association, a clinical psychologist provides mental health care specializing in the study of behaviors and mental processes. Psychologists work with cognitive processes, emotional behavior, and help patients integrate skills to improve interaction in their personal social environments. 

Psychologists can diagnose mental disorders, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. They determine and conduct treatment through psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) to help those with depression or anxiety. During therapy sessions, psychologists work to get to the root of psychiatric conditions.

Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists do not obtain a medical degree to treat depression or an anxiety disorder. They typically earn an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree of doctor of philosophy in psychology [Ph.D.] or doctor of psychology [Psy.D.]. They cannot prescribe medication for people who seek treatment. 

Many practicing psychologists complete two years of internship experience before earning their Ph.D. or Psy.D., depending on the states in which they practice.


Like psychologists, clinical psychiatrists study, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and others. In addition to psychotherapy, psychiatrists may treat the psychiatric disorder by prescribing medication. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.” 

Individuals seek help from a psychiatrist for many reasons. Some may experience hidden behaviors including panic attacks, hallucinations, or thoughts of suicide. Feelings may be long-term and may never seem to lift. Some people may feel as though everyday life is distorted, and tasks are not manageable.

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Doctor holding clipboard talking to patient about health problems

Psychiatrists perform a variety of treatments including talk therapy and psychosocial interventions. Treatments depend on the needs of the individual patient. Psychiatrists may perform a range of medical laboratory tests to provide an outline of a patient’s mental state. 

Psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medications, similar to how other clinicians treat high blood pressure or diabetes. The types of medications that may be administered by psychiatrists may include:


  • Antidepressants.

    Antidepressants may be administered for those diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions. 

  • Sedatives and anxiolytics.

    Sedatives and anxiolytics may be prescribed to treat insomnia and anxiety. 

  • Antipsychotics.

    Antipsychotics may be used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or psychotic symptoms.

  • Mood stabilizers.

    Mood stabilizers may be prescribed for those with bipolar disorder. 

  • Stimulants and non-stimulants.

    Stimulant and non-stimulant medications are

    commonly used to treat ADHD. 

Because psychiatrists can prescribe medications, they may order the GeneSight test, whereas a psychologist would have to work with a prescribing clinician like a psychiatrist, a primary care provider, or a nurse practitioner.

How Do You Choose a Psychologist or Psychiatrist? 

Choosing a Psychiatrist

Choosing a provider is an individual and personal choice. Some individuals may choose to see a psychiatrist as well as a psychologist; others may choose one or the other. You may want to talk to your primary care physician about a referral to determine which type of mental health professional you should see based on your medical history and mental illness. If a patient chooses a psychiatrist, they can review your medical record to understand the full picture.

A psychiatrist can help determine if medication treatment may help with any depressive symptoms that are significantly impacting your body and/or ability to complete daily activities. If you are already taking prescription medications for other conditions, a psychiatrist may consider drug-drug interactions as well. 

What to Look for in a Psychiatrist

Those who have never visited a psychiatrist may not know how to find one that suits their specific needs. There are a few factors to keep in mind when you search for a psychiatrist: 

  • Your condition or concern.

    Psychiatrists treat many conditions, but some specialize in areas of focus that may suit your needs. You may want to look for a psychiatrist, who may treat your conditions while matching your specific conditions and concerns. 

  • Which medications you may or may not need.

    You may need a psychiatrist to manage medications while also providing talk therapy options. 

  • Credentials.

    When choosing the best psychiatrist for you, you may want to consider their credentials. Do they have proper education, training, licensing and practice experience? Which areas of mental health do they specialize in? Be sure to research their treatment approaches and philosophy as well.

  • Telehealth offerings. If you prefer telehealth appointments or find it difficult to schedule an in-person visit, you may want to search for a psychiatrist who offers telehealth appointments. Psychiatrists registered with GeneSight can also send a GeneSight® at Home sample collection kit directly to you to complete the GeneSight test from the comfort and privacy of your own home.
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Choosing a Psychologist

Psychologist writing notes during a psychotherapy session with her patient

“Psychologists who specialize in psychotherapy and other forms of psychological treatment are highly trained professionals with expertise in the areas of human behavior, mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment, and behavior change,” according to the American Psychological Association.

There are multiple ways in which you can find a psychologist. You can talk to your current physician, call your local psychological association, or consult a local college department of psychology for quality practitioners. Other places to search for psychologists who you feel comfortable around include community mental health centers and local churches or synagogues. 

The American Psychological Association indicates that comfortability is an important component in finding a psychologist for you. 

“Most psychologists agree that an important factor in determining whether or not to work with a particular psychologist, once that psychologist’s credentials and competence are established is your level of personal comfort with that psychologist,” the article states. “A good rapport with your psychologist is critical.” 

It is important to note that it may take multiple appointments or sessions with several psychologists before finding the best one to suit your needs.   

In an article in Forbes, Marian Margulies, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and a candidate in psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education at the NYU Medical Center said that, “If you’re not getting to the cause of the pain, you’re essentially chained to the past. Psychotherapy gets to the root.”

Margulies also noted that, “the time to start talking about feelings is as early as possible.”

Seeking therapy from either a psychiatrist or psychologist may give you the help you need to combat symptoms and struggles of depression and anxiety. 

If you have symptoms of depression and you’re seeking medical help, it might be difficult to know exactly where to go. Psychiatrists and psychologists both treat patients with depression, but there are differences in their education, experience, and approach to mental health treatment that should be taken into consideration before committing to a doctor. If you’re wondering whether a psychiatrist or psychologist is better for patients with depression, here’s what you need to know:

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who graduated from medical school, along with completing a year of medical internship and three years of residency in the assessment and treatment of mental health disorders. Working in private practices, hospitals, university medical centers, prisons, rehabilitation centers, and a variety of other venues, psychiatrists usually treat patients with mental health conditions that require medication, including major depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia. Psychiatrists typically diagnose using psychological tests and one-on-one evaluations, and they also run lab tests to rule out any physical cause for symptoms. Treatment can include psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both, and medication will be fine-tuned according to observations and results. 

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What is a psychologist?

Psychologists have a doctoral degree in the area of psychology and usually complete a two-year internship, but they are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication for mental health disorders. Psychologists work in many of the same settings as psychiatrists, and employ talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients understand their symptoms and learn how to manage them. When treating children, psychologists often use play therapy to gain insight by observing behaviors and patterns.

Psychologist or psychiatrist for depression

Differences in treatment between psychiatrists and psychologists

Both psychiatrists and psychologists rely on psychotherapy—talking with patients about their problems—to help diagnose mental health conditions, but the way they approach treatment differs. Psychiatrists take a medical approach, focusing on the biological aspects of mental illness and using medication to help treat symptoms. Psychiatrists also consider a patient’s full medical history to rule out physical conditions as the source of mental health issues—for example, thyroid conditions can have similar symptoms as depression. Psychologists, on the other hand,  focus more on thought and behavior, and attempt to track patterns in the patient’s life that might cause or contribute to their symptoms.

Who should you see to treat your depression?

The type of mental health professional you see will depend on a variety of factors, from the severity of your illness to your depression treatment preferences. For severe depression, a psychiatrist will be able to rule out any other medical conditions and prescribe medication that can be customized and fine-tuned to your specific needs. However, if you’re going through a difficult time and you want to work on better understanding your thoughts and behaviors, a psychologist can help you work on issues on an ongoing basis, and medication might not be necessary. In some cases, seeing both a psychiatrist and psychologist is helpful, with the psychologist offering regular therapy sessions while the psychiatrist manages medications. Whichever specialist you choose, it’s important to make sure they have extensive experience treating depression and an approach and manner that makes you feel comfortable. If you don’t “click” with a psychiatrist or psychologist, it’s perfectly acceptable to try someone else until you do.

Treatment for depression in San Diego

Whether you’re looking for a psychiatrist or psychologist to diagnose and treat your depression, we can help. At Pacific Health Systems in San Diego, we take a holistic approach to diagnosing depression and design customized treatment plans for each individual.  For more information on our diverse range of treatment options for depression or to set up a consultation, fill out our contact form or call us at (619) 267-9257.