There are many people working in the mental health field, and it can be confusing trying to keep straight who does what and which professional you should go to for which issue. Whether you’re trying to decide which mental health professional to set up an appointment with or considering studying mental health yourself, we're here to help make things simple. In this article, we explain psychologist vs psychiatrist similarities and key differences, what each of them does, what going to each of them will be like, and how you can decide which mental health professional will be most effective for you.
What Is a Psychologist?
A psychologist is a mental health professional who uses their knowledge of the mind and human behavior to treat mental health problems. They commonly engage in what is often called “talk therapy,” discussing issues and potential treatment paths with patients to help them overcome mental health issues they are struggling with.
All psychologists have a doctorate degree and have spent years studying the best ways to treat mental illnesses. While some focus primarily on research, others meet regularly with patients and will use a variety of techniques, such as personality tests, cognitive behavioral therapy, and others to help treat patients.
What Is a Psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has gone through medical school and a residency focused on psychiatry. They are qualified to assess both mental and physical aspects of psychological problems, and they also have the ability to prescribe medication to patients.
As physicians, psychiatrists have a deep understanding of the human body and can order a wide range of medical tests to help diagnose a patient and try to understand if there is an underlying health issue causing mental health problems. Once the patient has been diagnosed, the psychiatrist will often use a mixture of psychotherapy and medication for treatment, and the psychiatrist will regularly follow up with the patient to make sure the medication prescribed is working the way it should be.
Psychologist vs Psychiatrist: Key Similarities
Both psychologists and psychiatrists have the same goal: to help you with any mental health challenges you’re experiencing. Both will talk with you, either one-on-one or in a group, about your life and issues you’re facing, and work with you to develop a plan to improve your mental health and overall well-being.
Despite the different degrees each group has obtained, both psychologists and psychiatrists have gone through extensive classes and training to learn the best ways to address mental problems. They’re both well-equipped to provide a variety of techniques to address your concerns. During your first meeting with either a psychologist or psychiatrist, they’ll ask you questions about your life and struggles you’ve been facing, and they’ll work to come up with the correct diagnosis. Once that has been done, they’ll develop a treatment plan to help alleviate your mental health problems.
Psychologist vs Psychiatrist: Key Differences
What's the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? While both are in the mental health field, there are several key differences between psychiatrists and psychologists.
To become a psychiatrist, you need to complete medical school as well as a residency, typically in a psychiatric unit. These each typically take four years to complete. Psychiatrists may also choose to receive additional training in a specific area of psychiatry, such as addiction, child psychiatry, etc.
Psychologists also receive a high level of education. They must have a doctorate degree, typically either a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology, in order to practice. The PhD degree is often more research-focused, with students completing a dissertation, while the PsyD route is more practice-oriented. In either case, doctoral programs often take five to seven years to complete. Once they have their doctorate degree, psychologists must obtain a license through their state board before they can practice. This may involve a year or two of internships/supervised practice before they are qualified for their license.
Ability to Prescribe Medication
Only psychiatrists can write prescriptions for medication; almost no psychologists can. This is because psychiatrists have completed medical school and taken numerous classes on how different types of medicine can interact with the brain, so they’re qualified to write prescriptions.
In rare cases though, psychologists are able to write prescriptions. For example, in Louisiana and New Mexico, psychologists who received a master’s degree in clinical psychopharmacology after they received their doctoral degree are able to write prescriptions, but they are the exception.
Approach to Patients
As mentioned in the previous section, both psychiatrists and psychologists are well-equipped to work with patients to alleviate their mental health problems. There is a lot of overlap in the techniques they use but, in general, psychologists will focus on psychotherapy and behaviors and techniques patients can use to improve their mental health. This often involves cognitive and behavioral therapy and interventions, and it can also include personality tests, IQ exams, behavioral assessments, and clinical interviews.
Psychiatrists, on the other hand, can also do those things, but if they’re prescribing medication, they’ll also spend a significant amount of time working with the patient on medication management and making sure the medication the patient is taking is having the desired effect and not negatively impacting other areas of their lives.
For example, if you are depressed and have difficulty getting out of bed every day, a psychologist will ask you questions about your life and feelings, perhaps study your sleeping and eating patterns, and develop a plan of action you can follow to change your behavior and improve your thoughts. A psychiatrist will often begin the same way, asking questions and gathering information to have a full sense of the problem. They may also order medical evaluations, such as blood work, to make sure there’s no underlying medical issue causing the problem. After they make their diagnosis though, they may prescribe medication, and that medication may or may not be used in conjunction with behavioral therapy.
EarningsAccording to the US Bureau of Labor, the average salary in 2018 for psychiatrists was $220,380, while the average salary for psychologists was $79,010. The demand for both jobs is growing much faster than average: 19% a year for psychiatrists and 15% for psychologists.
When Should You See a Psychiatrist vs Psychologist vs Therapist?
If you’re struggling to decide which mental health professional you should see, don’t feel like this is a decision you need to make yourself. We recommend first setting up an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss your mental health concerns and what help you’re looking for. They can then recommend the person they think will be most helpful to you.
It’s also important to remember that, if you don’t click with the person you’re seeing, or your issues change, or you’re just not making the progress you want, you can always switch to a different person in the same profession or switch to receiving help from someone with a different mental health title. This is very common. For example, you may begin by seeing a psychologist who then recommends you to a psychiatrist so you can be put on medication to make more progress. You may then continue to see both your psychiatrist and psychologist, or you may switch completely to a psychiatrist, depending on your needs.
Everyone’s mental health needs are different, so don’t feel like you need to see a certain type of professional in order to make progress. In general, people who need medication to control their mental health issues will see a psychiatrist (although they may see additional mental health professionals as well) since they are the people who can prescribe the medication, while people interested in talk therapy and learning the skills that therapy can provide will see a psychologist.
There are also other mental health professionals, such as social workers and mental health counselors. These professions typically only require a Master’s degree, but they are still well-trained in mental health. If you don’t have health insurance, they are also often cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. However, be aware that “therapist” isn’t an official term and anyone can call themselves one, even if they don’t have a background in mental health. Before you decide to go to any mental health professional, check to see what their qualifications are and try to read reviews of past patients to make sure they are qualified to help you.
Summary: The Difference Between Psychologist and Psychiatrist
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? Both are mental health professionals who work with people struggling with their mental health, but these two careers have different backgrounds and approaches to working with patients. Psychologists have a doctorate and will often use behavior analyses and modifications, along with talk therapy, to assist patients. Psychologists are medical doctors who take a more full-body health-focused approach. They can also prescribe medication to patients, which most psychologists cannot.
If you’re trying to decide which mental health professional to set up an appointment with, before you decide if you want a psychiatrist vs psychologist, set up an appointment with your primary care physician. They’ll be able to direct you to the person they think will be most useful, and you can always switch to someone else if you aren’t making the progress you want.
Now that you know the difference between psychologist and psychiatrist, are you interested in taking AP Psych? For information on how to prepare for the AP Psychology exam, check out our comprehensive review guide.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.