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Reviewed by Angela Sheddan, DNP, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Even the words ‘psychologist’ and ‘psychiatrist’ sound similar: Try saying them five times fast and you’ve got a tongue twister! It’s easy to see how people can get the two confused.
Psychologists and psychiatrists are mental health professionals who study human behavior and actions, and support people by diagnosing and treating specific mental health conditions.
Deciding on a psychologist vs. psychiatrist will depend on what you are looking for and what you are experiencing. Here’s some information to help you determine what might be best for you.
A psychologist is a mental health professional who helps support people with a myriad of mental health conditions.
This includes diagnosing and treating specific mental health issues or mental health conditions, helping people cope with stressful situations, and managing addictive behavior or chronic illness.
A psychologist may also educate clients on psychological theories to help them learn about how they think, feel and behave.
Psychologists are often counselors and employ talk therapy.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists are experts in diagnosing, assessing, treating and preventing mental health disorders — and have the ability to prescribe medications when necessary, for treatment.
Psychiatrists can also assess patients' physical and mental health and how they might relate.
Given that both professions are in the mental health field, there are some similarities such as outcome goals and research abilities. Here’s more on what’s similar between the two types of mental health professionals:
Psychologists and psychiatrists work to help people with their mental health. Both types of healthcare professionals can support clients through different mental health illnesses, and provide mental health treatment.
Regardless of the title, these professionals are set up to care for people. Many people think of either profession as a ‘doctor for the mind.’
The goals for both are usually to have the client improve their mental health and state.
To have a career in psychology or psychiatry (and mental healthcare in general) one must go through intensive and specific education and training.
There are differences, however, especially in terms of the education needed for each profession. We’ll get into that more, below.
Specific psychologists and psychiatrists may choose to do mental health research. These professionals then research specific mental health topics and conditions to help inform treatment and future research.
There are some key differences between psychologists and psychiatrists — which mostly relate to education and mental illness treatments.
The specific educational backgrounds and paths are different for psychologists and psychiatrists, such as the following:
Psychologists attend graduate school during which they typically pursue a doctorate level degree in psychology, such as a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy), PsyD (doctor of psychology), or EdD (doctor of education). Practicing psychologists have a doctoral degree in one of these fields.
These programs typically take four to six years to complete, with one to two years of supervised work with patients and licensing exams. Some psychologists will specialize in specific fields and have additional training for areas such as couples therapy or child therapy.
Psychiatrists attend medical school during which they pursue a medical degree — either an MD (doctor of medicine), or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine). After medical school, they pursue psychiatric-specific residencies, fellowships and further training.
Psychiatrists spend more time in school and have full medical training. Often this means four years of medical school, followed by three to four years in a specific, psychiatry residency training program.
Many psychiatrists may also sub-specialize in a specific area, like adolescent psychiatry or adult psychiatry.
Another contrast between psychiatrists and psychologists is the type of treatment provided, and the philosophy behind treatment methods. Although there is often overlap in treatment, psychiatrists are the ones able to prescribe medication.
Psychologists will typically use talk therapy as a form of treatment, but the method of talk therapy may depend on you and your psychologist. Some forms of talk therapy include:
This approach takes into account behaviors, feelings and thoughts to discover their meanings and motivations. (Psychiatrists may employ psychoanalysis, too.)
This is an approach that focuses on learning more about behavior (much how it sounds).
Your counselor may observe your conditioning and try to help you desensitize toward specific behavior.
Talk therapy commonly includes both a behavioral approach and a cognitive approach (see below).
This approach focuses on what you think rather than what you do. In this way, cognitive therapy is meant to highlight dysfunctional thinking that might be leading to dysfunctional emotions or behavior.
This approach focuses on helping you discover your ability to make choices and develop your maximum potential.
Medication — In Certain States
Most practicing psychologists cannot prescribe medication. However, New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa and Idaho laws allow licensed psychologists to prescribe medication. So in those states, medication may be a part of the treatment plan.
Like a psychologist, psychiatrists will often use talk therapy such as the various talk therapy methods above.
However, because a psychiatrist is a physician, they can provide treatment based on mental and physical health — which sometimes includes other interventions or medication.
Some psychiatrists will use talk therapy as a part of their treatment plan. They also may use psychological testing in talk therapy to determine and diagnose different mental health conditions.
In extreme cases, when patients don’t respond to medication or talk therapy, sometimes a psychiatrist will use brain stimulation therapy.
For example, electroconvulsive therapy is one procedure in which electric currents pass through the brain while you’re under anesthesia. However, this is typically only used to treat severe depression or resistant bipolar disorder.
Unlike most psychologists, as mentioned above, psychiatrists have the ability to prescribe medication as part of a treatment plan.
The different types of medications that psychiatrists typically prescribe include:
Antidepressants are medications designed to change brain chemicals that are involved in regulating moods. These chemicals are primarily serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed to treat patients with panic disorders and generalized anxiety.
Hypnotics work sort of how they sound: They’re medications used to treat sleep disorders, and to help patients maintain sleep.
Antipsychotic medications are the primary medication treatment for those with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders. For some, antipsychotics can provide relief from hallucinations and delusions, too.
Mood stabilizers are also much how they sound: They’re a class of medications used to stabilize mood in patients with bipolar disorder.
Different types of stabilizers target different chemicals in the brain to treat bipolar disorder.
Stimulants are medications used to enhance specific actions within the brain. These stimulants are typically prescribed to help treat patients diagnosed with ADHD.
Deciding whether to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist is totally up to you and what you are seeking in terms of your mental health.
Some people decide to start with a psychologist to evaluate their needs, while others go straight to a psychiatrist to get evaluated for a treatment plan.
Some people decide to go to both a psychologist and a psychiatrist, often seeing a psychologist for in-person or online counseling and a psychiatrist to determine the best form of medicine.
Some psychiatrists in fact may not want to offer talk therapy — and may refer you to a psychologist or counselor, whereas your counselor may suggest seeing a psychiatrist if they feel you could benefit from medication.
A general healthcare provider can help give you guidance on which mental health professional may be best for you if you’re having trouble determining your needs. We also have a guide on therapist vs psychiatrist.
Either way, deciding to see a psychologist or psychiatrist can be a big step in your own health journey, as you address your mental health concerns.
Dr. Angela Sheddan has been a Family Nurse Practitioner since 2005, practicing in community, urgent and retail health capacities. She has also worked in an operational capacity as an educator for clinical operations for retail clinics.
She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, her master’s from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and her Doctor of Nursing Practice from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. You can find Angela on LinkedIn for more information.