Taking care of your mental health is a highly individual pursuit. It’s going to look different for everyone. A big part of that journey is making sure you’re working with the right type of mental health professional; one that will meet your immediate psychological needs and set you up for success in the long run. Discover the differences between psychologist vs psychiatrist and how choosing one or the other could affect your treatment approach.
Psychology vs Psychiatry
Psychologists and psychiatrists are two types of health professionals that represent different branches of mental health treatment. These two fields largely shape the key differences between them. Psychology focuses on the biological, cognitive, and social influences on behavior. Psychiatry has a more medical approach, that is concerned with diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health disorders.
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
Many people think that anyone who works in the mental health space is a therapist. This umbrella term is sometimes used to apply to counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The primary difference between these terms are:
- Education and credentials
- Whether or not they can prescribe medication
- What treatment would look like
These differences can drastically change the shape of how they can help you and what form that help would take.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors that went to medical school for four years. You can easily distinguish them from other types of mental health professionals because they will have ’M.D’ on their name.
Psychologists, on the other hand, are not medical doctors. However, they may still be called ‘doctor’ as psychologists may have a doctorate degree (Ph.D.). More often they have master’s degrees, however, as those with PhDs tend to be more focused on research rather than treating.
All psychiatrists can prescribe medications but not all psychologists can. Whether a psychologist can prescribe medication may largely depend on the state. Psychologists can do so in Louisiana, New Mexico, Illinois, Iowa, and Idaho with additional training and permits.
However, you don’t have to go to a psychiatrist for medication. It’s likely that you can obtain common meds like one’s for anxiety and depression from your primary care physician.
Psychiatrists (medical doctors) focus on the physical brain. As such, they don’t usually conduct psychotherapy, the traditional type of therapy you’re used to seeing in movies. Instead, they primarily diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe psychiatric medication. However, some psychiatrists may be trained in traditional talk therapy as well as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Psychologists are like a hybrid between psychiatrists and counselors (a.k.a. therapists). They conduct formal assessments to identify specific mental health conditions (although they don’t conduct formal diagnoses, that’s exclusive to psychologists), but often work with patients through talking to help them manage life with their condition.
Key psychologist vs psychiatrist differences
- Work with people to alter behavior and help them manage symptoms
- Focus on a broader range of mental health issues
- Work with patients long-term
- May have a PhD or master’s degree
- Focus on the physical brain, rather than feelings
- Can prescribe medications while most psychologists can’t
- Don’t usually offer counseling
- Work with patients in short-term
- Formally diagnose mental illnesses
Which one should you see?
Psychiatrists and psychologists have the same end goal, but pursue them through different means. A general guiding factor to consider is that if you’re dealing with debilitating mental health symptoms, you probably want to go to a psychiatrist. This ensures you have access to medication to treat the immediate symptoms that might otherwise be causing harm to yourself. A psychiatrist would also be the best call if you need a formal diagnosis of a mental illness, which you might need for medical or legal purposes.
If you are looking for long-term support for a mental health disorder or symptoms, a psychologist would be your best bet. They can help you learn how to deal with and manage challenging situations by modifying your behavior and thinking, rather than treating specific symptoms with pharmaceutics. Psychologists can also assist with other problems that could be weighing on your mental health, but wouldn’t fall under the expertise of a psychiatrist such as relationship-based issues or stress.
However, it’s not an either-or situation. You don’t have to choose between a psychiatrist or a psychologist. They fulfill unique roles in the overarching field of mental health (though there is a bit of overlap). It might simply be a matter of deciding which type of professional you go to first. When in doubt, talk to your primary care physician who can point you in the right direction of a great psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist-counselor.