Psychologist Vs. Psychiatrist: When To See Who?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Are you considering seeking the support of a mental health professional for yourself or a loved one? If so, you may wonder if you should try to connect with a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Though their titles sound very similar, there are a few key differences between these two professions. Understanding them can help you know where to turn for the guidance and treatment you may need. Read on for an overview of both types of mental health professionals and how to choose which one to meet with.

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What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

What is a psychologist?

A psychologist, often referred to as a therapist or counselor, will typically focus on cultural, social, and environmental factors that may be contributing to a person’s mental health challenges, rather than biological ones as psychiatrists typically do. There are several specialties psychologists can pursue, including developmental psychology, forensic psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, and rehabilitation psychology. 

Career path: Doctoral program and licensure

The career path of an aspiring psychologist typically begins with an undergraduate degree in psychology. The next step is to obtain a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. Many psychologists also complete a master’s program between undergraduate and doctoral programs. Graduate schools usually require prospective students to take the GRE and prove that they have completed the requisite undergraduate coursework. There are two primary types of doctorate degrees: PsyD and PhD. After graduating with a PsyD, most psychologists focus on providing mental health care. PhD graduates, on the other hand, usually conduct research. 

To become a licensed psychologist, an aspiring professional normally must fulfill several requirements beyond graduate school. The exact criteria can change from state to state. Usually, though, an individual must complete a specific number of hours of clinical training, pass certain tests, and pay fees before they can be designated a licensed clinical psychologist and begin practicing. Additionally, individuals following specific career paths might need to obtain further credentials. For example, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, some psychologists may be asked to become certified by the organization governing their specialty. 

How doctors of psychology treat mental health disorders

Clinical psychologists normally help clients by conducting psychotherapy. Through various types of talk therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, for example, they can help the individuals who seek their support with things like:

  • Identifying and shifting distorted thought patterns

  • Healing from past trauma

  • Building healthy coping skills

Some psychologists specialize in conducting a certain psychotherapeutic modality or in working with a certain type of clientele, like art therapy, mindfulness-based therapy, family therapy, or child psychology, for example. Note that psychologists typically aren’t licensed to prescribe medication, except those with certain additional training, education, and licensing in the states of Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatry is a division of medicine that focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions. Unlike a psychologist, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who must attend medical school to receive their formal training. There are several psychiatric subspecialties, including child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and consultation-liaison psychiatry.

Career path: Medical school and residency

Aspiring psychiatrists typically must complete undergraduate coursework in biology, chemistry, etc., and obtain a degree before applying to medical school. Future medical students usually have to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and interview with schools to be considered for acceptance. While attending medical school, future psychiatrists work in clinical and outpatient settings, learning how to administer medical interventions to individuals with various health concerns. 

After students complete medical school, they can begin a four-year residency in psychiatry. While in a residency program, doctors usually work for a year in a hospital setting, before getting hands-on training in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. Once they complete a certain number of training hours, pass the licensing exam, and fulfill any other requirements, psychiatrists can obtain a medical license and begin practicing. Some psychiatrists choose to further specialize upon completing their residency. 

How medical doctors treat mental health disorders

Psychiatrists use the medical model when treating mental disorders. They usually concentrate on the physiological aspects of mental illness. Because of their medical degree and licensing, they can prescribe medication whenever they believe it would be an appropriate treatment for a patient. They may also recommend other forms of treatment, depending on the situation, such as talk therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, or lifestyle changes. 

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Psychologist vs. psychiatrist: Similarities and differences

Psychologists and psychiatrists are similar in many ways, so it makes sense why they’re often confused. They both use their training and experience to address mental health conditions. However, psychiatrists can prescribe medication to this end if they believe it’s necessary, whereas psychologists are typically not licensed to do this. 

The reason is that psychiatrists have a medical degree, whereas psychologists do not; they’re likely to have a master’s degree or possibly a Ph.D. in psychology, counseling, social work, or a similar area of expertise instead. In addition, while both types of professionals can offer talk therapy services, it’s more likely that you’d see a psychologist for this.

Note also that someone who is experiencing a mental health concern may sometimes seek the support of both a psychologist and a psychiatrist in order to address it. For example, a psychiatrist could see a patient, evaluate them, and make a diagnosis of a certain mental illness using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). If they believe pharmacological solutions could help and would be appropriate for the given patient, they may prescribe medications. They may also recommend that the individual connect with a psychologist to engage in talk therapy to further progress their treatment. After all, the recommended care for a variety of mental health conditions—from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—is therapy, sometimes in conjunction with medication depending on the individual, their symptoms, and their diagnosis. 

Which type of mental health professional is right for me?

Meeting with a psychologist, like a therapist, can be a helpful option if you’re not sure where to begin when it comes to mild to moderate mental health challenges. They can provide you with a compassionate space where you can explain what you’re experiencing and get support in these areas via talk therapy. If they feel you might benefit from medication as well, your therapist could refer you to a psychiatrist. Examples of reasons you might see a therapist include things like:

  • Experiencing anxiety

  • Feeling concerned about a romantic or family relationship

  • Showing signs of low self-esteem

  • Looking for help in coping with trauma or grief

Meeting with a psychiatrist can be a helpful option if you’re experiencing more severe or complex mental health concerns, such as symptoms that are significantly impacting your ability to function. They’ll usually focus predominantly on identifying whether you may be experiencing a mental illness, what it is, and what the best course of treatment might be for you if so. Those who are experiencing signs of or have been diagnosed with complex mental health concerns like schizophrenia, severe depression, or bipolar disorder, for example, may be advised to regularly meet with a psychiatrist as part of their treatment plan—and they’re likely to benefit from meeting with a psychologist regularly as well.

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What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

How to connect with a provider

If you’re looking to meet with a psychiatrist, you might contact your insurance company to get a list of in-network providers near you. If you don’t have insurance, you can contact local providers to find out if they’re accepting new patients, what their fees are, and whether they offer a sliding scale or financial support, if applicable. Your primary care physician or psychologist could also offer you a referral to a psychiatrist. 

If you’re looking to meet with a psychologist, you can follow the same steps as above. Or, if you’d prefer to meet with a therapist from the comfort of home, you might consider online therapy. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online therapy can be as effective as in-person sessions in most cases, so you can typically choose whichever format you prefer.

Takeaway

Psychologists and psychiatrists are two different types of mental health professionals. Psychologists typically are not able to prescribe medication and will instead support a client who is experiencing mental health symptoms or challenges through some type of talk therapy. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are able to prescribe medication as needed if they’ve diagnosed an individual with a mental illness that may benefit from this type of treatment. You can reach out to an online counselor at BetterHelp to learn more about what type of professional is best suited to assist you with your needs.
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