There’s a misconception that psychology and psychiatry are the same fields. In reality, there are significant differences between the professions. True, there’s some overlap between practices. This is why it’s important to truly understand the difference between psychologist and psychiatrist before you begin searching for help.
Mental health is arguably one of the most pressing health-related concerns we face today. Multiple research studies have shown that conditions — like depression and anxiety – are becoming more common every year. If you’re experiencing any type of mental health problem, it’s essential that you reach out to the right type of mental health professional as soon as possible.
How do you know if you should be seeking medical treatment from a psychologist vs. psychiatrist? What types of treatments does each offer? What education do they have? Let’s explore all of this and more, as we cover what’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist
There are a number of parallels between psychologists and psychiatrists. Both provide treatment to a wide range of patients. Those dealing with chronic medical conditions, children, adults, or the elderly all might need help at some point in life. Some mental health professionals dedicate their work to specific populations — like inmates, survivors of abuse, or even military soldiers.
Yes, there can be a bit of overlap in the types of patients these providers treat (as well as how they can treat them). Understanding the differences — from training, to what they can offer patients, to how they can treat them — will help ensure you find the proper provider.
What is a psychologist?
Psychologists are trained professionals. They’re skilled at assessing, diagnosing, and treating behavioral dysfunctions and psychological issues that can disrupt life — the types of things that can lead to stress, coping issues, addiction, and more. Psychologists go through advanced training that prepares them for their career. But instead of going to medical school (like a psychiatrist), psychologists go to graduate school after earning their undergraduate degree. They’ll ultimately earn a PhD or a PsyD, which is different from the doctoral degree a psychiatrist receives.
Psychologists commonly act as consultants with other healthcare providers (including partnering with psychiatrists) to provide mental health treatment. It’s not uncommon for a psychologist to specialize in a specific area of mental health.
What is a psychiatrist?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who focus on diagnosing and treating mental illness. While both psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to help people, one main difference between the two fields is that psychiatrists have an actual medical degree — they are truly a doctor. Another key difference is because they can prescribe medication, often psychiatrists’ treatment plans focus on medication management. Many psychiatrists have advanced qualifications they earn in both medical school and residency.
Psychiatrists do actually go to medical school before completing their residency. Then, they may also complete additional training, known as a fellowship, where they typically specialize in a specific area of mental health treatment.
For example, some psychiatrists complete a fellowship in forensic psychiatry. This specialty could allow them to help law enforcement professionals. Others may complete a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry to prepare for a career working with children. In fact if you’re looking for how to find a psychiatrist, we share everything you need to know.
Differences in Treatment
There are a few fundamental differences in how psychologists and psychiatrists treat people. In general, both mental health professionals use specific types of therapy as the backbone of any treatment process.
A good example of this: both psychologists and psychiatrists use therapy tactics like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). They also often use other forms of talk therapy.
An important area where the fields diverge has to do with treatment through medication. Psychologists are only allowed to prescribe medication in a few select states — even then, they must have specific advanced training.
A psychiatrist, however, can prescribe medication to any patient who needs it, regardless of location. If you think you’ll need medication, that can be a determining factor when selecting a provider. You may want to at least think about this when deciding who you’ll work with. If you’ve already been diagnosed, or if you’ve been prescribed medication in the past, it might be wise to seek help from a psychiatrist from the start.
Differences in Education
As previously noted, another big area where psychologists and psychiatrists differ has to do with education.
To become a psychologist, you must complete your undergraduate degree (which takes 4-5 years on average) before going on to graduate school. There, you’ll earn an advanced psychology degree — a master’s, a doctorate, or even both. Finally, psychologists get specialty training through a postdoctoral program or internship to get the practical experience they need to begin effectively working with patients. Areas of specialty can be in clinical psychology, neuropsychology, or forensic psychology, to name a few. The last step to becoming a psychologist is getting your license.
To become a psychiatrist, you’ll go to medical school and earn a medical degree. You’ll first obtain your undergraduate (bachelor’s) degree before completing four years of medical school. After that, you’ll complete a 3-7 year internship and residency in psychiatry. Once you become board-certified, you can decide to complete additional specialty training through a fellowship. This last step might be required if you hope to practice certain types of psychiatry, such as geriatric psychiatry or adolescent psychiatry.
We can sum up the basic difference between psychologist and psychiatrist education like this:
Psychologists primarily focus on the study of human behavior and development.
Psychiatrists study human biology and medicine.
Differences in Practice
Beyond just education and training, we also want to take a close look at how psychologists vs. psychiatrists differ in their actual practices.
A psychologist can work with patients to address behavioral patterns that may be destructive to their well-being. They’re confident in diagnosing through interviews, observations, and surveys. Remember that psychologists generally don’t prescribe medication. Despite this limitation, they do work in settings similar to psychiatrists. Examples where psychologists may work include private practices, hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and even rehabilitation programs.
Psychiatrists often start their own private practice. But they can also hold positions in general hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, or prisons. Some psychiatrists also specialize in rehabilitation programs. Each psychiatrist has his or her own style of practicing. Many will begin with talk therapy, and some will lean more quickly toward prescription medication than others. It’s common for psychiatrists to implement a combination of treatments if the diagnosis warrants it.
When Should You See a Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist?
How do you decide when you should see a psychologist vs. psychiatrist? If you have a complex mental health issue that you either know or suspect requires medication — i.e., severe depression, severe anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or anything else with hallucinations or delusions — you may want to consider seeing a psychiatrist who’ll be able to prescribe the medication you need.
Alternatively, if you’re going through a difficult time and want to better understand what’s happening in your life, then reaching out to a psychologist might be a great first step. A psychologist can provide different types of therapy options that could be appropriate for you and your mental health care needs.
If you have questions or are wondering if a specific mental health provider is right for you, you should reach out to learn more about their qualifications and the types of treatments they offer. This way, you can make the best decision for yourself or your loved one when choosing help.
- AllPsychologySchools.com. 2021. How Psychologists and Psychiatrists are Different | All Psychology Schools. https://www.allpsychologyschools.com/psychology/psychology-vs-psychiatry/. Accessed 22 July 2021.
- Goodwin R, Weinberger A, Kim J, Wu M, Galea S. Trends in anxiety among adults in the United States, 2008-2018: Rapid increases among young adults. https://www.sandrogalea.org/academic-papers/ 2020/12/10/r3pvrsgxuvocfzi4xlghhtxjloa1ni. Published 2021. Accessed July 22, 2021.
- How to Find a Psychiatrist, With and Without Insurance. Healthline.https://www.healthline.com/health/ how-to-find-a-psychiatrist. Published 2021. Accessed July 21, 2021.
- Wang J, Wu X, Lai W, et al. Prevalence of depression and depressive symptoms among outpatients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. 2017;7(8):e017173. Published 2017 Aug 23. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-017173
Commonly Asked Questions
Psychologists are not medical doctors, but psychiatrists are. Psychiatrists have to undergo at least 11 years of training before training for 1 or 2 years as a general doctor. Afterwards, they are required to complete a minimum of 5 years of training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication, diagnose illness, and manage treatments for serious mental illness. Psychologists, on the other hand, focus mainly on providing psychological treatments such as psychotherapy to their clients. If a psychologist refers to themselves as a ‘Dr,’ it is most likely that the title refers to a Masters or Doctorate degree in psychology; it doesn’t mean they are medical doctors.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists are qualified mental health professionals trained to help with depression, but one may be better suited to your particular needs depending on the situation. Oftentimes, a person suffering from depression will benefit from both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists will be able to help prescribe medications to alleviate their symptoms, but psychologists will be able to support them in talking through their emotions. The most important thing for those struggling with depression is to seek help. If a psychologist thinks you could benefit from psychiatric help, they will be sure to help you find it.