Differences between psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy
This page explains the significant differences between roles in psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy.
Staff working in these roles tend to deal with different types of problems, although there is also considerable overlap in their work.
Below is a brief description of each of the different areas.
Psychology is the study of people: how they think, how they act, react and interact. It’s concerned with all aspects of behaviour and the thoughts, feelings and motivation underlying such behaviour.
Psychology is a discipline that is firstly concerned with the normal functioning of the mind and has explored areas such as learning, remembering and the normal psychological development of children. It has been one of the fastest growing university subjects and is increasingly available in schools and colleges.
Psychologists are not usually medically qualified and only a small proportion of people studying psychology degrees will go on to work with patients.
Psychologists can specialise in a number of areas, such as mental health and educational and occupational psychology. In healthcare, psychologists specialise in clinical, counselling, forensic or health psychology.
Psychological therapy roles
There are also roles using psychology for other staff, including assistant psychologists, psychological wellbeing practitioners and high intensity therapists
Psychiatry is the study of mental health problems and their diagnosis, management and prevention. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have qualified in psychiatry. They often combine a broad general caseload alongside an area of special expertise and research.
Psychotherapy is conducted with individuals, groups, couples and families. Psychotherapists help people to overcome stress, emotional and relationship problems or troublesome habits.
There are many different approaches in psychotherapy, or talking therapies, which include:
- cognitive behavioural therapies
- psychoanalytic therapies
- psychodynamic therapies
- systemic and family psychotherapy
- arts and play therapies
- humanistic and integrative psychotherapies
- experiential constructivist therapies
A psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional, who has had further specialist training in psychotherapy. Increasingly, there are a number of psychotherapists who do not have backgrounds in the above fields, but who have undertaken in-depth training in this area.
Medical psychotherapists are fully-qualified doctors who have qualified in psychiatry and then undertaken a three or four-year specialist training in psychotherapy. Their role is in the psychotherapeutic treatment of patients with psychiatric illnesses.
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
So what is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?
Something we get asked quite a lot!
A psychiatrist is a medically-qualified practitioner who will have first spent 5/6 years training as a doctor.
They will then have worked as a doctor for at least a year. Following that, the psychiatrist will then have had at least six years of further training in helping people with psychological problems.
What are a psychiatrist’s special skills?
All psychiatrists will learn how to:
- assess a person’s state of mind
- use the “biopsychosocial” model of understanding. This emphasises the importance of a person’s past experiences, family, culture, surroundings and work as well as any medical features.
- diagnose a mental illness
- use a range of psychological treatments
- use a range of medications
- help a person recover
As well as these ‘core’ skills, a psychiatrist will specialise and develop skills in working with the particular problems that affect different groups of people.
Psychologists have a degree in psychology. Chartered Clinical Psychologists are not usually medically-trained, but have undertaken a long and robust training following their psychology degree.
They are primarily concerned with the study of how people think, act, react and interact.
A psychotherapist may be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional who has had further specialist training in psychotherapy.
As well as listening and discussing important issues with you, the psychotherapist can suggest strategies for resolving problems and, if necessary, help you to change your attitudes and behaviour.
A mental health team
The Mental Health Team is a group of mental health professionals who work together to help people with a wide range of mental health problems. The different professions all have different knowledge and skills which can be used to tackle problems together.
Our consultant psychiatrists can provide you with a full initial assessment, opinion, recommendations, suggested treatment plan and report diagnosis all within a few days of you being seen. Why wait?
The Psychiatry UK Team
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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