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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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What is the difference between psychology and psychiatry? Both professions share some educational requirements and practices, but are distinct from one another. Learn the similarities and differences between psychology vs psychiatry.
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People often use the terms “psychiatrist” and “psychologist” interchangeably — an easy mistake to make if you are not familiar with the field. Both professionals treat patients struggling with mental health on a one-on-one basis. However, there is quite a bit of difference between the two professions when it comes to their education, training, and scope of practice.
So, what is the difference between psychology and psychiatry? Read on to explore the similarities and differences between the two disciplines and determine which career path is right for you.
What is Psychology?
The study of the mind, emotions, and behavior, psychology was considered a branch of philosophy before becoming an independent discipline in the mid-1800s. Psychology students examine the cognitive and social factors that influence people’s actions and reactions. Psychologists employ a variety of therapeutic techniques to help patients heal from trauma and improve their mental health.
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What is Psychiatry?
Psychiatry is a branch of medicine focused on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. The term literally means the “medical treatment of the soul.” Like psychologists, psychiatrists use psychotherapy to help clients. However, they also understand how biology factors into a person’s mental health and how to treat mental illness with medication.
Similarities and Differences
While the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry share a lot in common, there are some key differences in the education and practices associated with each path.
Training and Education
Psychologists must earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctoral degree in psychology. In many states, candidates also complete a postdoctoral fellowship to accrue additional supervised experience before obtaining licensure and treating clients. The educational process to become a licensed psychologist takes about 8-10 years.
To become a psychiatrist, candidates complete a bachelor’s degree before attending medical school. Prospective psychiatrists study pharmacology, anatomy, biology, neurology, and disease, acquiring the knowledge necessary to prescribe medication. Graduates complete a residency, which typically lasts about 4 years, before seeking licensure. The process lasts about 12 years in total.
Differences in Practice
Both psychologists and psychiatrists can provide psychotherapy. However, most psychiatrists treat patients primarily by prescribing medication, while psychologists mainly rely on providing talk and/or behavioral therapy. Some states now grant psychologists prescription privileges once they complete the required education and training.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are therapists psychologists or psychiatrists?
The word “therapist” is a generic term that can refer to a licensed counselor or clinical psychologist authorized to treat mental illnesses without the use of drugs. While psychiatrists can provide psychotherapy, they usually do not refer to themselves as therapists.
Is psychiatry a type of psychology?
Psychiatrists and psychologists are both trained to identify mental issues and disorders. Psychiatry is technically a branch of medicine, while psychology is its own separate discipline.
Can psychologists diagnose mental illness?
Yes, psychologists are trained to diagnose mental illnesses.
Can psychologists prescribe medication?
Generally, no. There are five states where clinical psychologists can prescribe medication: Louisiana, New Mexico, Illinois, Iowa, and Idaho.
Do psychologists and psychiatrists make similar salaries?
Psychiatrists make more on average than psychologists in the United States. As of 2020, psychiatrists earned an average of $217,100 while clinical psychologists earned a median of $82,180.
Who spends more time in school: psychiatrists or psychologists?
Psychiatrists spend about 12 years in higher education, while psychologists spend about 8-10 studying.
Are psychologists doctors?
Clinical psychologists are doctors in the sense that they attend graduate school and obtain a doctoral degree. However, they are not medical doctors like psychiatrists.
Choosing Between Psychology and Psychiatry
Choosing between these two career paths comes down to your personal priorities, as both professions come with pros and cons. Differing factors include educational requirements, average salary, and scope of practice.
As a Career
Psychiatrists typically pay more for their education than psychologists because they spend longer in school. However, the return on investment quickly pays off, as the average psychiatrist out-earns the typical clinical psychologist. While this initially attracts many students to psychiatry, there are other factors to consider when choosing between the two professions.
Are you more interested in environmental and social effects on mental health, or biological factors? Psychology students dive deep into the external causes of mental disorders and the therapeutic approaches to treating them. Psychiatrists spend a significant amount of time exploring the biological and neurological elements of mental health, which requires a strong aptitude for math and science.
Some prefer clinical psychology because it allows practitioners to spend more time getting to know their clients and fostering deeper relationships with them. While some psychiatrists do choose to provide therapy, most focus on helping patients with medication.
As a Client
It can be tricky to determine the type of mental health professional that is best for you. If you think you have a serious mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, consider seeing a psychiatrist. While individuals with these conditions can benefit from psychotherapy, medication is also a helpful treatment for many people.
As a general rule, seeing a licensed counselor or clinical psychologist is a good place to start. Talk therapy can help you process trauma and give you tools to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety without medication. If your therapist determines that therapy alone is not improving your symptoms, then you may consider seeing a psychiatrist.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find a psychiatrist who is willing to take on new patients, because they are in such high demand. As an alternative, you may choose to see a therapist in conjunction with a general practitioner who can prescribe you the medication you need. This way, you can benefit from receiving psychotherapy in addition to medicine.
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Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D.
Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who currently practices in the Chicago area. She holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. Her clinical interests include the treatment of eating and body image concerns, college student and student-athlete mental health, and mood disorders. Pietrucha has also taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology.
Megan Pietrucha is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
Page last reviewed November 23, 2021