What Is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

Michelle Overman, LMFT
Updated on February 16, 2021

In the world of mental health, it’s crucial to distinguish between the various types of mental health professionals and the roles they play. In the same way that medical doctors have their specialties, so do mental health practitioners.

Psychiatric pills

You might see a family doctor for a common cold, but if you suffered from foot pain, you would see an orthopedic specialist. Likewise, there are therapists who focus on specific areas such as couples counseling, trauma, and addiction. Each therapist brings their own expertise and background to their work, and it’s important to understand what it is exactly you need.

So what’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
While both psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to diagnose and treat patients with mental health issues, there are three critical differences between the two professions

Training

Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors with at least 11 years of training. After completing medical school, they spend time during their residency training in psychiatry.

Psychologists have at least six years of training. In order to provide treatment, they will have gone through a master’s program and a doctorate program and will be licensed to provide therapy. The academic work along with a post-graduate internship while under supervision will give them the license they need to practice. Clinical psychologists have special training that allows them to diagnose and treat mental illness

How They Treat Patients

Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they are able to prescribe medications. A psychiatrist’s main objective is to provide medications based on the client’s diagnosis. Once the client is prescribed a medication, a psychiatrist continues to work with them on managing and refilling their medication and will see them maybe once every few months.

Licensed psychologists 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.

Conditions Treated

Psychiatrists usually treat patients with complex conditions that require medication – such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders, to name a few.

Psychologists are more likely to treat patients whose problems can at least partly be resolved through some form of psychological treatment.

Better Together

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.

Michelle Overman, LMFT

Michelle is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families.