What Is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

People often use the terms therapist, counselor, psychologist, and psychiatrist interchangeably when describing a mental health professional who offers psychotherapy or other treatment plans. Even though “therapist” and “counselor” are accepted umbrella terms for anyone engaged in the treatment of mental illness, including social workers (LCSW), marriage and family therapists (LMFT), and licensed professional counselors (LPC), there are distinct differences in the professions of psychologist and psychiatrist.

the professions in practice

The Field of Psychology vs. Psychiatry

Perhaps the most critical difference in the mental health professions of psychiatrists and psychologists is the field itself. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines psychiatry as “the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of emotional and behavioral disorders.” Psychology is defined by the American Psychological Association (also, confusingly, known as the APA) as “the study of mind and behavior” and a “discipline” that “embraces all aspects of the human experience.”

These definitions may sound similar, as the practitioners in both occupations explore mental health issues. However, psychiatrists and psychologists approach patients and mental illness from different points of view. Psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, work with patients from a biological perspective. They use their knowledge of the structure of the brain to explore biochemistry and the way psychiatric medications chemically impact different mental health disorders. Psychologists, on the other hand, approach mental health problems from a behavioral perspective. They use their knowledge of human behavior to explore how the underlying thoughts, concerns, and patterns affect a patient’s overall emotional and mental health.

Educational Differences

These different points of view and the various ways to approach mental disorders are reflected in the educational focuses of psychiatry and psychology. Psychiatrists graduate from medical school, complete a one-year medical internship, and have a three- to four-year residency in a mental health services environment. Their coursework and clinical training earn psychiatrists the right to add M.D. (or D.O. for doctors of osteopathic medicine) to their title, and the ability to write prescriptions. 

Psychologists also complete an undergraduate course of study and many years of advanced graduate school education and mental health training. Psychology students also earn a doctoral degree, and upon graduation are addressed as “doctor,” although they’re not medical doctors. Psychologists earning a counseling psychology or clinical psychology doctoral degree in philosophy is a Ph.D., while a clinical or professional Doctor of Psychology degree is a Psy.D. Psychology students also typically complete advanced clinical internships for up to two years, working with patients under the supervision of another mental health professional. Psychologists are trained to administer psychological tests, but psychiatrists aren’t. In some states, psychologists who have advanced specialized training in psychopharmacology are allowed to write prescriptions for a selected number of psychiatric medications.

Before being licensed, psychologists must successfully pass the Examination for the Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) developed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. Additionally, psychiatrists have to pass the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology exam for board certification, and then recertify every ten years. Both psychiatrists and psychologists must pass a written exam to earn a state license where they plan to practice.

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Career Options

Psychiatrists and psychologists can choose from a considerable variety of specialties and career paths. Most psychologists work directly with patients, offering psychotherapy, or talk therapy, in private practice, university counseling center, hospital setting, prison, or as part of another clinical practice program like hospice, rehabilitation, or mental health clinics. Many psychologists work as professors in academic settings as they advance the field of psychology through scientific inquiry and train future psychologists. Psychology students may also choose a particular specialty, allowing them to work in different occupations that place them in a variety of settings. For example, school psychologists work with students, parents, and teachers in a high school or other academic settings. Forensic psychologists work in a law environment. Industrial-organizational psychologists, or I-O psychologists, study workplace behavior to help employers with staffing and job training and implement solutions to improve efficiency.

Psychiatrists work in many of the same settings as psychologists. Some conduct research in an academic environment or for government agencies, while others become university professors, furthering the educational needs of others pursuing careers in the field. Psychiatrists may receive additional training to specialize in psychopharmacology, neuropsychiatry, or addictive medicine. Some focus on a specific age group, selecting a career as an adolescent psychiatrist or in geriatrics.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2018 most psychiatrists are employed in private practice, while substance abuse and psychiatric hospitals employ the highest concentration of these professionals. In the same year, most psychologists were employed as clinical, counseling, and school psychologists, and the majority were self-employed, meaning that they are in private practice for themselves. There were more than 181,000 psychologists in the United States, while only 25,630 people were employed as psychiatrists.

The Professions in Practice

Because both psychiatrists and psychologists may diagnose and treat mental health conditions using psychotherapy techniques like psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), patients may choose to see either professional. However, each can provide slightly different services. 

The most significant difference in the treatment plans offered by psychiatrists and psychologists is the ability of the former to prescribe medication for the treatment of mental disorders. These prescriptions may include antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, stimulants, or sedatives. As medical doctors, psychiatrists provide medical management services. They monitor medication and make regular assessments of a patient’s progress over some time, adjusting medications when necessary.

Patients may prefer seeing a psychiatrist solely for the convenience of receiving both mental health and medical treatment from the same person. However, many psychiatrists opt to focus more on medication management and may offer only limited or no talk therapy as part of their practice. Prescription medication often complements the work of psychologists and may be provided by a psychiatrist or a primary care physician. In that case, both professionals will work closely together, updating one another with patient information to ensure the best possible results. Medication is especially helpful in mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and major depression. Psychiatrists may also diagnose and prescribe medication for a patient, then make a referral to a practicing psychologist or counselor for psychotherapy counseling.

Which mental health professional should you choose?

So when it comes right down to it, should you see a psychologist or a psychiatrist for your mental health-related problems? Your answer depends on a few different factors.

For example, is it essential for you to see one mental health professional with medical training who can both prescribe medication and provide talk therapy? This choice might be a simple matter of convenience and making the most of your own time, or perhaps you’d prefer to work with one practitioner. If that’s the case, you will look for a practicing psychiatrist. A psychiatrist might also be a good option if you’re struggling with complex or severe mental dysfunctions like bipolar disorder, PTSD, or schizophrenia. Psychiatrists can perform a wide range of medical laboratory tests and psychological evaluations to make a diagnosis and develop a tailored treatment plan.

If you’re looking for help with emotional difficulties or mood disorders, dealing with high-stress situations, or want more insight into your negative thoughts and behavioral issues, a psychologist might be your best bet. A psychologist focuses on understanding the mind and behavior, after all. In addition to talk therapy, a psychologist can offer more creative ways to overcome behavioral problems, like play therapy or role play. While they cannot perform medical lab tests, psychologists have extensive training in making diagnoses through a thorough psychological evaluation.

Find the Best Counseling Professional Today

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ultimate goal of both practicing psychiatrists and psychologists is to help you get better. One is not necessarily better than the other. The same goes for others in the mental health profession, like social workers, family therapists, or counselors.

You will have the best experience and achieve optimum results if you’re comfortable with your therapist. Your decision might be based not on job titles, but rather on specialties, years of experience, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, religious beliefs, or personal values. If you’re ready to get started on a journey to better mental health, reach out to Therapy Group of D.C. today to talk to one of our specialists or to schedule your first teletherapy session.

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