While the nuanced differences between psychologists and psychiatrists are extensive, the main thing that sets them apart is that psychiatrists undergo medical training and are authorized to prescribe medication, whereas psychologists do not have medical degrees and are not authorized to prescribe medication. Aside from that, they also differ in the types of patients they treat as well as how they treat them.
The field of mental health comprises several professions, and understanding the differences between them is crucial in getting the right treatment. Similar to medical doctors, mental health practitioners also have specializations that focus on specific mental health issues.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are two prominent professions in the field of mental health. Both are trained to diagnose and treat mental health disorders, but their differences lie in their training, how they treat patients, and the conditions they treat.
Psychiatrists undergo rigorous training, with at least 11 years of education and practice. After completing medical school, they spend time during their residency training in psychiatry. As licensed medical doctors, they are authorized to prescribe medication, which is their primary objective in treating clients. Psychiatrists mainly prescribe medication for clients with complex conditions that require medical attention, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders.
On the other hand, psychologists have at least six years of training, including a master’s and doctorate program, and are licensed to provide therapy. Clinical psychologists have special training that enables them to diagnose and treat mental illness through psychotherapy and counseling. They do not have the authority to prescribe medication, and their focus is on helping patients resolve their problems through psychological treatment. Psychologists primarily treat patients whose mental health issues can be resolved through psychological treatment, such as depression, anxiety, and stress.
How They Treat Patients
Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they can prescribe medications. Once the patient is prescribed a medication, a psychiatrist continues to work with them on monitoring the effectiveness and managing the dosage and refills of the medication.
Psychologists, on the other hand, offer various types of psychological treatment, including counseling and psychotherapy, that are tailored to treat specific types of issues. They cannot, however, prescribe any form of medication. Sessions are typically held once a week and may include any of a variety of therapeutic modalities, including, among others:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
- Art therapy
- Play therapy
Psychiatrists usually treat patients with complex conditions that require medication, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders, to name a few, as well as more severe cases of common mental health conditions that require medications, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Psychologists are more likely to treat patients whose problems can at least partly be resolved through some form of psychological treatment. This may include anxiety, depression, relationship issues, grief, trauma, and more.
Research indicates that medication works best in conjunction with therapy. Medication by itself can be life-changing but it will not necessarily solve all your problems. Therapy allows professionals to work with clients on changing behavioral patterns that are unhealthy or even damaging. For example, a psychiatrist can provide medication to help a person manage their anxiety. A psychologist steps in by helping the person learn breathing techniques as well as address some root causes to help a person fully cope with the anxiety. Psychologists and psychiatrists often collaborate in overseeing the care of their patients so they can address their needs holistically.
Understanding the differences between mental health practitioners is crucial in getting the right treatment. Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors who can prescribe medication and mainly treat patients with complex conditions that require medical attention. Psychologists, on the other hand, are trained to provide therapy and primarily treat patients whose mental health issues can be resolved through psychological treatment. Collaboration between psychologists and psychiatrists can address the needs of patients holistically, making it easier to manage mental health disorders
- Types of Mental Health Professionals. (n.d.). Mental Health America. https://mhanational.org/types-mental-health-professionals
- Different approaches to psychotherapy. (2009, December 1). https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/approaches
- Family Institute at Northwestern University. (2015, March 11). Combining anti-depressants, therapy may be a powerful treatment option for major therapy. ScienceDaily.