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What Is a Psychiatrist? And How Are They Different from Psychologists?

By Julia Simkus, published March 21, 2022

by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Many people tend to assume that ‘psychiatry’ and ‘clinical psychology’ are interchangeable terms, but there are numerous key differences between these two specialties.

Psychologists and psychiatrists are both critical providers in the field of mental health and are trained to treat mental illnesses using psychological treatments, but they each have distinct specialties and roles within their individual practices.

Psychiatrists and psychologists often work together, each embodying a different role. Often, a psychiatrist will make an initial diagnosis and prescribe any necessary medications, and then refer you to a psychologist for ongoing psychotherapy.

The two professionals will work in collaboration with each other in the total assessment and diagnostic process of an individual, couple, or family. The psychiatrist will typically manage the medications while the psychologist will provide therapy services.

Education and Training

Psychiatrists must graduate from medical school and become a licensed medical doctor before completing their training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

While they are educated in behavioral science and mental processes, they receive most of their education and experience in medical studies and their coursework emphasizes medicine, human biology, and anatomy. Becoming a psychiatrist usually requires at least 11 years of education and training.

Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, need either a master's degree in a psychology-related field or a doctorate degree in clinical psychology – either a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy in psychology) or a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology).

If a psychologist earns a PhD or PsyD, he/she would be considered a doctor. They receive professional training specifically focused on treatment methods to help individuals cope with a variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.

Their coursework emphasizes human development and behavior. Becoming a clinical psychologist usually requires around at least 6 years of education and training.

While both psychiatrists and clinical psychologists might be considered doctors, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, whereas a clinical psychologist has earned a doctorate in the field of clinical psychology 

Specialties

Psychiatrists tend to focus on the brain and medicine to treat psychiatric and psychological disorders. They usually treat people with more serious, complex, and abnormal conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression.

They focus on medication management and identifying and medically treating disorders. They are able to understand the intricacies of the brain and how diseases, such as metabolic disorders, poor nutrition, drug or alcohol abuse, and severe head injuries can affect our minds and behavior.

Clinical psychologists are more concerned with cognition, mental health conditions, behavioral problems, depression, and anxiety. They tend to serve the role of a counselor or therapist, using psychotherapy to help patients cope with mental illness, work through personal issues, and develop healthy coping mechanisms for emotional problems.

They can provide services for specific populations such as children and adolescents, veterans, LGBTQ persons, people with learning disabilities, families, couples, or elderly people.

They also will typically have a specialty or a niche in an area such as substance abuse, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, or eating disorders. They focus on treating emotional and mental suffering and use psychotherapy to work through these problems.

Treatments provided

Both psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to provide therapy and treat behavioral health problems in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Psychiatrists can diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, manage psychological treatment, and provide therapy. Psychiatrists tend to focus their sessions with patients on managing dosages of medication and monitoring the patients’ progress and symptoms while on medication. Patients usually do not engage in talk therapy with their psychiatrist, although they certainly can.

Psychologists, on the other hand, focus specifically on psychotherapy and take a more holistic approach to treating patients. They are unable to prescribe medication and usually work with patients to create treatment plans to work through difficult emotional and behavioral issues.

Psychologists utilize psychotherapy which is a talk-based therapy, but there are various approaches and techniques within this field. Examples include psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, dialectical behavioral therapy, emotionally focused therapy, and existential therapy. 

Where they practice

Psychiatrists can work in hospitals, private practices, psychiatric facilities, and government facilities. They typically work in collaboration with a patients’ other medical providers and alongside a patients’ psychologist.

Clinical psychologists tend to work in outpatient facilities or offices, either as an individual practitioner in a private practice or as part of a group practice. They can also work in hospitals, health clinics, schools and universities, rehabilitation centers, or for large corporations as organizational psychologists.  

While both psychiatrists and clinical psychologists treat mental and behavioral health problems, there are fundamental differences in terms of education, authority to medicate, treatment approach, and work environment.

However, despite these differences, psychologists and psychiatrists are both essential in researching about and developing treatments for improving the mental and emotional well being of people. 

Do you need mental health help?

USA

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255

UK

Contact the Samaritans for support and assistance from a trained counselor: https://www.samaritans.org/; email [email protected].

Availiale 24 hours day, 365 days a year (this number is FREE to call):

116-123

Rethink Mental Illness: rethink.org

0300 5000 927

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Julia Simkus is an undergraduate student at Princeton University, majoring in Psychology. She plans to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology upon graduation from Princeton in 2023. Julia has co-authored two journal articles, one titled “Substance Use Disorders and Behavioral Addictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic and COVID-19-Related Restrictions," which was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in April 2021 and the other titled “Food Addiction: Latest Insights on the Clinical Implications," to be published in Handbook of Substance Misuse and Addictions: From Biology to Public Health in early 2022.

How to reference this article:

Simkus, J. (2022, March 21. What Is a Psychiatrist? And How Are They Different from Psychologists? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/difference-between-a-psychologist-and-a-psychiatrist.html

Sources

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. (n.d.). Psychiatrists and psychologists: What's the difference? Your Health in Mind. Retrieved from https://www.yourhealthinmind.org/psychiatry-explained/psychiatrists-and-psychologists

Pipich, M. (2020, April 28). Clinical psychology vs. psychiatry: Key differences & what each does. Choosing Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.choosingtherapy.com/psychology-vs-psychiatry/

Psychology.org Staff. (2022, January 31). Difference between psychologist vs Psychiatrist. Psychology.org. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org/resources/how-to-choose-between-psychologist-or-psychiatrist-career/

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