Psychologist vs Psychiatrist: What's the Difference?
Psychologists and psychiatrists are mental health professionals who help people with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, relationship challenges, past or current trauma, and a whole host of other issues. Given their overlapping areas of expertise, it can be difficult to figure out who you need to see when you’re experiencing a mental health challenge—unless you understand the differences between a psychologist and psychiatrist.
Psychologists assess, diagnose and treat psychological problems and behavioral dysfunctions. Many provide therapeutic counseling, or talk therapy. They may work with individuals, couples, families or groups. Some psychologists work in schools; others work in prisons, rehabilitation centers, or healthcare settings.
A psychologist holds an advanced degree in psychology, or the science of the human mind and behavior. Initials you may see after a psychologist’s name include M.S. (Master of Science), Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy, which signifies a research-based doctoral degree in psychology), or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology).
All practicing psychologists complete a one-year supervised internship during school; during this internship, they learn how to effectively counsel patients and provide therapy. Most states require another year of supervised practice before an individual can apply for licensure as a psychologist. Before an individual can legally practice as a psychologist, they must pass a national examination. To maintain their license, they must complete several hours of continuing education each year.
According to the American Psychological Association, psychologists can administer tests and assessments that “evaluate intellectual skills, cognitive strengths and weaknesses, vocational aptitude and preference, personality characteristics, and neuropsychological functioning.” Psychologists use the results of these tests to help their patients understand themselves and navigate challenges. Vocational and personality testing, for instance, may be used to help an individual plan the next steps in their career. Psychologists do not prescribe medication and cannot perform medical procedures.
Psychologists typically specialize in a field of psychology, such as neuropsychology, child psychology, or family psychology. Some psychologists may work in the research field rather than counsel patients.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Psychiatrists receive the same medical school education as your family doctor or cancer physician; however, after medical school, they complete a 4-year residency in psychiatry, while cancer physicians, for instance, focus on cancer.
During their psychiatry residency, psychiatrists receive extensive training in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. They also learn how to manage psychiatric medications and how to administer treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), deep brain stimulation (DBS), vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and drugs to control schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Most psychologists cannot legally prescribe medication, so if you need medication to manage a mental health condition, a psychiatrist will likely be part of your healthcare team.
Psychiatrists and psychologists frequently collaborate for better patient outcomes. A person experiencing depression, for instance, may choose to see a psychologist first, as the psychologist can conduct testing to check for clinical depression and offer cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of therapy. If the patient continues to experience significant depression despite therapy, the psychologist may recommend that the patient see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist can evaluate the patient and prescribe antidepressant medicine, if needed.
Because antidepressants take weeks to reach peak efficiency, the patient will likely continue to see the psychologist for weekly counseling appointments while waiting to experience the full benefit of medication. After a few weeks, the patient will return to the psychiatrist to assess the impact of the antidepressant; if necessary, the doctor can adjust the dosage. Psychiatrists also help patients manage medication-related side effects.
Whether you see a psychologist, psychiatrist, or both will depend on your mental health needs. Your healthcare provider can help you understand the roles and responsibilities of the professionals involved in your care.