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The Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

Often, their approaches work best in tandem.

Key points

  • A major difference between the two types of experts is that psychiatrists can prescribe medication.
  • As physicians, psychiatrists are trained to recognize the ways biological processes affect mental functioning.
  • Psychologists are oriented to how thoughts, feelings, and social factors influence mental functioning.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are two key types of mental health experts. Both have advanced degrees based in the sciences, both undergo clinical training in the diagnosis and care of people with mental health problems, both may participate in research relating to mental health, and both must be licensed in the state in which they provide care.

But their training differs, as do the tools for treatment they have at their disposal, and often their theoretical orientation as well. Psychiatrists are medical doctors trained in the medical sciences. Psychologists hold doctoral degrees in psychology, a social science. Both perspectives are important in the relief of human distress.

As physicians, psychiatrists are trained to recognize the many ways general biological processes and pathologies can influence mental functioning—and vice versa. Psychologists are generally oriented to the ways that thoughts and feelings interact with social factors, such as relationships, to influence mental functioning, create symptoms of mental disorder, and disrupt daily life.

Medication and Therapy: Two Possible Approaches to Treatment

In practice, a major difference between psychiatrists and psychologists is that, as physicians, psychiatrists can prescribe medication. Both psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to provide psychotherapy, but the economics of healthcare today encourage psychiatrists to focus on delivering pharmacotherapy while psychologists, along with other mental healthcare providers, administer psychotherapy.

As a result, psychiatrists and psychologists commonly work together, playing complementary roles in treating individuals and often communicating about the progress of care. A few psychiatrists provide psychotherapy as well as pharmacotherapy if needed.

Research has clearly established that both therapy and medication are effective; both have the power to influence how the brain functions—and both have the power even to alter how genes function. Research has also clearly established that whatever the treatment administered, a huge factor in its effectiveness is the nature of the provider-patient relationship. A relationship of trust and respect between patient and provider makes a significant clinical difference no matter the professional degree the provider holds.

How Do I Know Whether to See a Psychiatrist or Psychologist?

There are some complex conditions that generally require psychiatric care, including medication. Psychosis, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorder are among them, although such conditions may also warrant psychotherapy. Many other conditions, including phobias, panic attacks, and other forms of anxiety, as well as depression, respond well to psychotherapy. After an initial evaluation that includes a history of the current problem, a psychologist or psychiatrist will make a determination as to the best course of care; sometimes, medication is warranted to pave the way for therapy.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists increasingly incorporate what research now reveals—that mental disorder is complex and arises from the interplay of many factors, including genetic susceptibility, physiological state, stress reactivity, memory and other mental processes, social experience, lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep, and physical activity, and general environmental conditions such as socioeconomic conditions and racism.

How to Find a Qualified Psychologist or Psychiatrist

One of the most reliable ways to find a treatment provider is by word of mouth: Ask a friend or family member who has successfully sought help to make a recommendation based on the results of their search.

In addition, the Psychology Today Therapy Directory has an extensive listing of credentialed psychiatrists and psychologists. The directory can be searched to find providers by geographic location, by the types of conditions they specialize in treating, by the treatment tools they specialize in, and by a number of other criteria important to the user.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Bohdan Malitskiy/Shutterstock

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