Psychologist Vs Psychiatrist: What’s The Difference And Why Does It Matter?

Updated October 12, 2018

Reviewer Laura Angers


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The words psychologist and psychiatrist are so similar that they are often confused with each other. Even if you do know the most basic differences, you may not realize how dissimilar their jobs are. Psychologist vs psychiatrists is an important distinction, especially if you plan to see one or both types of professionals. Once you know exactly what each can offer you, the decision becomes easier.

Psychologist vs Psychiatrist Definition

Rather than looking at one complex psychologist vs psychiatrist definition, it might be helpful to you to look at the two words individually.

Word Origins

Linguists believe the word 'psychology' originated sometime in the 1600s. The first part of the word comes from the Ancient Greek word 'psykhe,' meaning 'soul' or 'mind,' which later came into Latin as 'psyche.' The second part, 'logia,' comes from Ancient Greek and Medieval Latin. In English, this part of the word became 'ology,' which is the study of science or any branch of knowledge. As such, a psychologist is someone who studies the mind in a scientific way. The word has come to mean not only the study of the mind but also certain types of treatment for the mind.

Psychiatrist, coined in 1808 by a German doctor named Johann Christian Reil, has the same beginning as a psychologist, of course. However, the second part comes from the Ancient word 'iatrikos,' and into Latin as 'iatry.' This word part means 'medical treatment.' Thus, a psychiatrist is someone who provides medical treatments for the mind.

Psychologist Definition

A psychologist often called a therapist, is a social scientist who provides therapy for people who have a variety of mental health concerns. Some of these concerns may be mental illnesses. However, many people who are basically mentally healthy see a psychologist for help with a difficult situation.

Psychiatrist Definition

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of mental disorders. Psychiatrists use the medical model. This means that their focus is on diagnosing and treating illnesses. At first, psychiatry was centered only on the mental processes; however, as time has gone by, the discipline has come to rely more and more on biological concepts and research data than concepts from the social sciences. For this reason, they concentrate on the physiological aspects of mental illness and typically treat patients with medications.

Education and Training

The educational requirements for psychologist vs psychiatrist are quite different. A psychologist must have a graduate degree in psychology. Clinical and counseling psychologist must have a doctorate, either a Ph.D. or a PsyD. To complete their training and be allowed to call themselves 'psychologist,' they must be trained to work in both research and counseling, even if they never intend to do research for a living. All psychologists receive education and training in psychological testing as well. A psychologist who prescribes medications, as noted in the section titled 'Exceptions,' must complete an additional master's degree in psychopharmacology. They have a one- to two-year internship as well. They must then pass an exam to be licensed in their state.

To become a psychiatrist, on the other hand, someone must first become a medical doctor. They start by taking an undergraduate degree in a field related to the medical sciences. This degree may be in biology, chemistry, physics, or some other related subject. Then, they get a medical degree. Med school typically takes another four years.

Future psychiatrists do clinical rotations in at least five different specialties. They then complete at least one year of general residency and three years of psychiatric residency. Finally, they must pass a test for board certifications. If a psychiatrist wants to specialize in a specific branch of psychiatry, they may complete a fellowship after they finish their residency. They must also meet requirements for licensing, which usually involves taking a licensing exam.

Conditions Treated by Clinical Psychologist vs Psychiatrist

Comparing a clinical psychologist vs psychiatrist, one finds that they treat many of the same conditions. Yet, there are certain conditions that are best treated by one or the other. Often, a third choice is essential; that is, some conditions need the input of both a psychologist and psychiatrist.

By a Psychiatrist


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Since psychiatrists use the medical model, people who have distinct medical problems that are causing mental disorders need to see a psychiatrist first and foremost. In addition, there are several mental conditions that a psychiatrist is best suited to treat. Typically, the following conditions are treated by a psychiatrist with or without the help of a psychologist:

  • Mental illnesses
  • Personality disorders
  • Severe learning disabilities

By a Psychologist

Psychologists treat many more different conditions than psychiatrists. This is true because people with nearly every type of mental condition can benefit from therapy, but not all of them need medical treatment. Psychologists provide therapy for people suffering from:

  • Mental illnesses
  • Personality disorders
  • Learning disabilities
  • Relationship problems
  • Psychological trauma
  • Phobias
  • Stress in the workplace

Types of Services Offered

Which types of services are offered by clinical psychologists vs psychiatrists? Local regulations vary, but usually, the psychiatrist is the one who offers medically-oriented treatments, while the psychologist offers testing and therapy.

Testing

One of the psychologist's important jobs is to provide testing. New patients may fill out a pen-and-paper test or the psychologist may ask the questions in an interview with them. They may administer certain tests, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to new patients who are in outpatient treatment or in an inpatient setting. Other tests check progress along the way.

Often, the psychologist administers, scores, interprets, and reports on the test. They use the test results to aid them in treating the patient and may also pass the results along to the psychiatrist or other mental health professionals working with that patient as well. Psychiatrists are not trained to do psychological testing, so they rely on the psychologist for this information.

The only testing a psychiatrist is involved in is medical testing. They may send an order for blood work to check medication levels. They may order a sleep study if you may have a medical condition preventing you from getting the sleep you need to be mentally healthy. Or, they may consult with your physician to ensure you get any tests you need.

Diagnosis

Both psychiatrists and psychologists can diagnose mental conditions. They refer to the DSM-5, their diagnostic manual, for very specific information and diagnostic criteria for each disorder.

Therapy

The main job of a clinical psychologist is to provide therapy to people with mental conditions. Most therapies they use are talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, interpersonal therapy, humanistic therapy, psychoanalysis, gestalt therapy, existential therapy, holistic therapy, or any of the long list of talk therapies.


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They may also provide therapies that include both experience and talk. These might include virtual reality therapy, systematic desensitization, mindfulness therapy, adventure therapy, art therapy, etc. Many psychologists prefer an eclectic approach, combining two or more therapies to meet all the therapy needs of each patient. Very few psychiatrists offer any of these therapies.

Medications

Psychiatrist prescribes medications to treat mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, and attention-deficit disorders, for examples. They follow up with the patient regularly to check for side effects, ensure the patient is taking their medication, and to make any adjustments needed to get the best results. Psychologists don't usually prescribe medications.

Other Medical Treatments

Psychiatrists are also the ones who oversee other medical treatments. For example, electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), once known by the frightening name 'shock treatments,' may be prescribed for some persistent psychiatric disorders. This treatment has come a long way in recent years and has proven to be very effective for certain people.

Exceptions

While psychiatrists are medical doctors and psychologists are social scientists, each can take on the duties listed above for the other in certain circumstances.

Prescribing Medications

Again, it is the psychiatrist who usually prescribes medications. However, in the states of Louisiana, New Mexico, and Illinois have been granted the authority to prescribe medications if they have completed the required schooling and training.

Providing Psychotherapy

Usually, psychiatrists don't do psychotherapy. They are usually so busy that they only see most patients for a quick 15-minute med check once every one to three months as needed. Psychologists make the time to see patients for longer sessions because it takes time to talk about problems and find psychological solutions.

Yet, there are still some psychiatrists who do provide psychotherapy. One reason there are so few who do this is the psychologist vs psychiatrist salary gap. Often insurance requires patients to choose the less expensive therapy sessions, which are those offered by a psychologist, and stick to 15-minute med checks with the more expensive psychiatrist.

Deciding Which You Need: Psychologist vs Psychiatrist

So, how do you know whether to go to a psychologist or a psychiatrist with your mental health concerns? First, think about what kind of problem you have. Is it a problem you may be able to overcome with talk therapy alone? If yes, you can start by seeing a psychologist. In the event that you do need to see a psychiatrist, the psychologist can make a referral to one for you. The opposite may be true if you mistakenly choose to see a psychiatrist first. The only difference is that a psychiatrist expects to be diagnosing and treating a mental illness, while the psychologist usually doesn't make this assumption.

No matter what your mental health problem, talking to a psychologist may be your best option. A psychologist gives you the opportunity to explain the challenges you're facing, what type of distress they're causing you, and what you've tried to do to overcome them. A psychiatrist's intake appointment will be focused on identifying symptoms of a mental illness instead.


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However, there is one situation you need to address immediately. If your life is in danger due to suicidal thoughts or attempts, it's crucial that you go to a local mental health professional immediately. Whether you choose a psychologist or a psychiatrist, they will make sure you get the attention you need and refer you to other mental health professionals as needed right away. In this instance, the best option is to go to an emergency room to ask for immediate intervention.

In some cases, you might need to see a psychiatrist simply because your insurance requires it before you can receive any other mental health services. However, if you feel a psychologist is a right professional to help you, you can choose an online psychologist such as those available at BetterHelp.com. The cost is similar to an insurance copay, and the licensed psychologists who work through Better Help have the education and training needed to provide you with high-quality mental health care. You can always choose a Better Help psychologist to help you start the process in a convenient and completely confidential way.

Still not sure? That's okay. Whatever you decide, you can rest assured that if you reach out for help, you, either psychologist or psychiatrist can help you get it. Never put off getting help because you're afraid you'll make the wrong choice in psychologist vs psychiatrist. Your life and happiness are too valuable to waste time in indecision!


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