Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?
Psychologists and psychiatrists both treat mental health conditions, with some key differences. Learn the distinction between psychologists and psychiatrists.
Psychology and psychiatry deal with similar subjects. However, there are a few fundamental differences between psychologists and psychiatrists. According to the American Psychiatric Association, a psychiatrist is “a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health.” On the other hand, the American Psychological Association states that the training of a psychologist “focuses on all aspects of human behavior, with an emphasis on research and scientific methods.”
Psychologists have graduate degrees in psychology. These may be either a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.), a doctorate of psychology (Psy.D.) or a doctorate of education (Ed.D.). During graduate school, a psychologist in training studies the human mind and how the activities of the brain give rise to behaviors. Their education usually focuses on science and research.
During their training, psychologists take courses in:
- Human behavior
- Psychological assessment
While some psychologists conduct research, others treat patients in a clinical setting. They can evaluate the psychological condition of patients and diagnose mental disorders. Psychologists usually use psychotherapy — also known as talk therapy — to help patients manage the symptoms of their conditions. Most states do not allow psychologists to prescribe medicine, though some can with additional training.
Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors with medical degrees. These can be either a medical doctorate (M.D.) or a doctorate of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). After completing medical school and obtaining a medical license, psychiatrists complete four years of residency training that focuses on psychiatric health. Most psychiatrists in the United States are certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Similarities Between Psychology and Psychiatry
There are many similarities between psychology and psychiatry. These fields of study both originate from the same base of knowledge. Both also involve a deep understanding of the human mind and behavior, and the ways that people think and feel emotions.
Practitioners of both psychology and psychiatry can diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Both psychologists and psychiatrists use psychotherapy as a method to manage the symptoms of certain conditions. Psychologists and psychiatrists also work with their patients’ other doctors and health care providers to provide the best care possible.
Comparing Psychologists and Psychiatrists: How They’re Different
Though they may treat the same types of conditions, psychologists and psychiatrists have unique skill sets. The main differences between psychologists and psychiatrists are their educational background and their licensing. A comparison of the two also highlights a few more subtle differences in the ways that they work with their patients.
Educational and Training Background
Both psychologists and psychiatrists have doctorate degrees. However, the type of doctorate is different and attained through different schooling programs. Psychologists have either a Ph.D, a Psy.D or an Ed.D that they get through graduate school, while psychiatrists must obtain an M.D. or a D.O. from medical school.
Once done with their education, psychiatrists must pass a written exam to obtain a state license to practice medicine. Then, they must complete four years of medical residency with at least three years in psychiatry. Usually, the first year is done in a hospital setting, while the next three years are undergone in a more standard clinical setting. Afterward, most psychiatrists take a written and oral exam to become board-certified in psychiatry and sometimes an additional subspecialty of psychiatry, such as child, forensic or addiction psychiatry.
After they graduate, most psychologists complete an internship in clinical psychology. During this time, they receive training in conducting psychotherapy and administering psychological tests. While these evaluations don’t necessarily involve screening for diseases, they are important for understanding human behavior.
As medical doctors, psychiatrists typically earn more money than psychologists. The average annual salary of a clinical psychologist is about $85,340, while the annual average wage of a psychiatrist is about $220,380. The actual pay a psychologist or psychiatrist makes varies depending on several factors, such as experience level and work setting (grade school, community hospital, private practice, etc.).
When working with patients, psychologists and psychiatrists use somewhat different approaches. Both use psychotherapy to help their patients manage mental health conditions. However, the way they think about mental illnesses and decide how to treat them is not the same. Their methods do not contradict each other, but rather are both helpful and complementary aspects of whole-patient health care.
- Psychologists are very focused on behavior. The problems that patients experience as part of mental illness are often approached as a behavioral response to a situation or a pattern of behaviors. A psychologist can use various techniques to determine what is driving a patient’s behavior (like a past experience or conditioning) and help them modify their behavior to achieve a healthier outcome, often using therapeutic methods like cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Psychiatrists, on the other hand, view mental illnesses from a primarily neurological or chemical standpoint. They are more focused on the biological causes of mental health conditions and how changes in a patient’s brain and body affect their mental health. Because of this, they often prescribe pharmaceutical drugs to adjust a patient’s brain chemistry.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose and treat a wide range of mental health conditions. However, because of their different therapeutic methods, the types of conditions they usually treat vary. Patients who have severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or depression often need medications to treat their conditions, and therefore, are usually treated by psychiatrists. The same goes for patients having a mental health emergency, such as suicidal thoughts or psychotic episodes. Less severe conditions, such as personality disorders or mild general anxiety, are more likely to be treated by a psychologist.
Psychologists can screen for and diagnose mental health conditions. They can also administer general psychological evaluations, such as personality and I.Q. tests. When it comes to treatment, psychologists typically provide some form of psychotherapy. Many psychologists keep a schedule that allows them to meet with their patients weekly for psychosocial counseling. On top of treating conditions, psychologists can monitor and manage mental health, teach stress management skills and help clients learn how to express emotions in a healthy way.
Psychiatrists provide many of the same services that other medical doctors do. They screen for and diagnose mental health conditions and create treatment plans. Often, they prescribe medications for specific mental illnesses. When they do this, they periodically follow-up to make sure these medications are working well and are not causing harmful side effects. In rare instances, a psychiatrist may operate equipment for more complex diagnostics or procedures, such as electroconvulsive therapy.
Key Differences: Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists
- Psychologists have a doctorate degree and focus on human behavior science and research
- Psychiatrists have a medical degree and focus on the neurological aspect of mental health
- Both psychologists and psychiatrists can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, but only psychiatrists can prescribe medicine for them
- Psychologists often use psychotherapy to help patients manage milder mental health conditions
- Psychiatrists often use a combination of psychotherapy and medicine to treat more severe mental illnesses
- Either or both might be right to help with an individual’s personal mental health issues, but the best way to know for sure is to schedule an appointment for an evaluation
American Psychiatric Association. “What is Psychiatry?” Accessed May 15, 2019.
American Psychological Association. “What is the Difference Between Psycholog[…] and Social Workers?” Accessed May 16, 2019.
American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc. “Become Certified.” Accessed May 15, 2019.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2[…]chool Psychologists.” March 29, 2019. Accessed May 16, 2019.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2[…]-1066 Psychiatrists.” March 29, 2019. Accessed May 15, 2019.
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