Psychiatrist vs. Neurologist: What’s the Difference?

Published on: 25 Jul 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
man wearing glasses and sitting in chair

The fields of psychiatry and neurology are both related to the brain, but they focus on vastly different aspects of medicine. They also entail very different day-to-day roles. Understanding what is the difference between psychiatrist and neurologist is essential if you’re considering a career in one or the other (or if you’re trying to decide which one you should see for treatment).

It’s true that there’s some overlap between the two fields, but while there are various basic similarities when it comes to a neurologist vs psychiatrist, they actually require different qualifications and treat different conditions. 

If you’re thinking about going into the field of medicine, discovering the difference between psychiatrist and neurologist roles and functions can help you determine which you might be better suited for. If providing care for the brain is something you’re interested in, but you’re unsure about which path is right for you to take, keep reading. 

If you think you need to see a doctor about a physical or mental health condition relating to your brain, we can help you figure out which type you should make an appointment with. 

We’re exploring how each type of doctor can help patients and what it takes from an educational standpoint, the duties of each role, and what the future work environment might look like for someone on a path to becoming either a neurologist or a psychiatrist.

What is a Psychiatrist?

Wondering what a psychiatrist is and what they do? You’re not alone. This field of medicine is often lumped into “someone who provides therapy” as a whole. The truth is that although there are several types of psychiatrists, they are all highly skilled and trained medical doctors. Their profession also differs vastly from other forms of mental healthcare providers. 

Psychiatry is a field of medicine where doctors train to diagnose and treat psychological disorders and other mental health conditions. Psychiatrists use a variety of diagnostic techniques when examining a patient. They’ll consider physical and mental health history and review symptoms related to behavior. They do all this in an effort to best determine a diagnosis and ultimately, decide on an appropriate course of treatment. 

Treatment plans designed by psychiatrists can include behavioral therapy, counseling or therapy, and often psychiatrist medication. A psychiatrist will refer patients to other mental health professionals, including counselors, psychologists, or rehabilitation therapists for psychological treatment.

“A psychiatrist is a medical doctor specialized in the assessment, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir

What is a Neurologist?

Neurology is a specialty that trains physicians to treat neurological concerns related to diseases and conditions of the brain, spine, nervous system, and nerves. Neurologists can test patients for a variety of neurological conditions — they’ll attempt to figure out the root causes of any dysfunction of the nervous system and both diagnose and prescribe treatment for neurological conditions. 

Treatments typically include rehabilitation therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication. Depending on the diagnosis, a neurologist might suggest surgery. For very complex or severe nervous system disorders, neurologists often refer to and work with immunologists and/or rheumatologists. 

“A neurologist is a medical doctor specialized in the assessment, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of brain, spinal cord, and disorders of the nerves, muscles, sensory, motor, and neurological disorders.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir

Conditions and Symptoms

The symptoms and conditions a patient is experiencing will determine which specialist they should see, although it’s not too uncommon for someone to need to see both types of doctors. Some types of neurological conditions will cause symptoms that a psychiatrist might address, and the opposite can be true, too. 

What conditions do psychiatrists treat?

Psychiatry is the practice of treating people who have a mental health condition that affects how they behave, think, and feel. 

Some of the conditions psychiatrists treat can include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Addiction
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dissociation
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Feeding and eating disorders
  • Mood swings
  • Schizophrenia
  • Emotional trauma
  • Developmental disorders

“Psychiatrists treat various emotional and behavioral disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, PTSD, etc.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir

What conditions do neurologists treat?

While neurologists can address problems relating to any part of the nervous system, they primarily focus on the spine and brain. However, their specialty trains them to also treat pain, weakness, discomfort, or instability throughout the body. 

Some of the conditions neurologists treat can include:

  • Migraine
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Sleep disorders
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Dementia
  • Dizziness
  • Vertigo
  • Vision issues
  • Shaking
  • Epilepsy
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Muscle weakness
  • Brain damage
  • Strokes 
  • Seizures

“Neurologists treat epilepsy and seizures, spinal cord injuries, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir

Symptoms that can be treated by both psychiatrists and neurologists 

There are times when someone would benefit from seeing both a psychiatrist and a neurologist. For example, a patient who suffers from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) — which can have a severe impact on how the brain works — may experience symptoms of depression or anxiety as a result of their injury. Thus, seeing a neurologist to address the trauma to the brain would make sense, and seeing a psychiatrist to treat the depression symptoms would also be wise. 

There are several other conditions and symptoms that might be treated by both doctors, including:

  • Hallucinating
  • Issues sleeping
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Memory issues
  • Confusion 

“These include insomnia, sleep disorders, dementia, memory problems, and pain management. There is collaboration to manage certain disorders with comorbidity.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir

Responsibilities

What is the difference between psychiatrist and neurologist roles? There are a number of overlapping responsibilities that would be common for both a neurologist and a psychiatrist to have. They both diagnose and treat patients, for example. They both provide consultations, prescribe medicine, and work with other members of a patient’s care team, too. 

However, there are several responsibilities that are distinct between the two fields. 

Psychiatrists’ responsibilities

Psychiatrists are responsible for meeting with patients to assess their mental functioning. During the process, they’ll ask about behaviors, moods, and emotions. They will utilize interviews, written assessments and personality tests, and other techniques that allow them to do a complete, comprehensive examination. 

Other responsibilities of a psychiatrist include:

  • Creating treatment plans for symptom management
  • Order blood testing for patients 
  • Writing referrals for patients 
  • Working with therapists and counselors to ensure proper treatment plans
  • Keeping up with the latest medication and treatment research
  • Monitoring a patient’s progress 

Neurologists’ responsibilities

Doctors of neurology are responsible for helping people who deal with any sort of symptom stemming from issues or conditions with the nervous system. This is a wide scope of possibilities that can include discomfort anywhere in the body since we have nerves everywhere in our body. They will evaluate patients during a consultation visit where they do a physical exam and ask about symptoms. 

Other responsibilities of a neurologist include:

  • Conducting diagnostic brain, spine, and other scans like:
    • MRIs
    • MRAs
    • VNGs
    • EEGs
  • Doing nerve function testing
  • Reviewing testing results
  • Writing prescriptions to address symptoms throughout the diagnostic process
  • Writing prescriptions for treatment after diagnosis 
  • Following up with a patient to monitor progress

Difference in Education

All medical doctors, at a minimum, will need to obtain a bachelor’s degree before applying to and attending medical school. The neurologist vs psychiatrist education track will be slightly different from each other, especially in terms of their training after school. 

Neurologists do a 4-year residency in their field, working and training with experienced, accomplished neurologists. During their residency, they’ll begin to practice in the specialty they have chosen. 

Psychiatrists, like neurologists, also do a 4-year residency and choose a specialty to focus on. The difference, however, is psychiatrists will work with other licensed psychiatrists for their training.

“It takes 10 to 12 years of training to specialize and become a psychiatrist or a neurologist. The path is intense and requires university studies, medical school, research, and completion of residency in psychiatry or neurology. Furthermore, there are additional years of specialty training in various specialties — for psychiatry it could be child and adolescent psychiatry, substance-abuse, geriatrics, and forensic psychiatry. For neurology, it could be child neurology, clinical neurophysiology, epilepsy, and neurocritical care.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir

Finding a Psychiatrist with Talkspace

Finding the right doctor to work with can be daunting. Finding the right psychiatrist to work with can be even more difficult. Understanding the answer to the question what is the difference between psychiatrist and neurologist is the first step. 

To have a successful relationship with any sort of mental health professional, you must feel very comfortable opening up and expressing your deepest innermost thoughts. Talkspace can make this simple, especially on your first visit, which can be overwhelming for many people. Our experienced, trained, compassionate psychiatrists work tirelessly with patients to ensure they make the most progress in their treatment plans.

Reach out today to learn how working with a psychiatrist at Talkspace can be the first step you take in changing your life. We’ve streamlined the process to be simple and convenient. Our online therapy platform means getting the help you need is easier than ever. Don’t wait to find a psychiatrist — you deserve help. 

Sources:

1. Eske J. What is a neurologist? What they treat, procedures, and more. Medicalnewstoday.com. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326717. Published 2022. Accessed June 8, 2022.

 2. What is Psychiatry?. American Psychiatric Association. https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry. Published 2022. Accessed June 8, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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