Psychiatrists and Psychologists: Understanding the Differences

People often confuse psychiatrists and psychologists. There are similarities—both psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to help people with mental health problems. But there are also important differences. If you need help with a mental health concern, who should you turn to, a psychiatrist or a psychologist?

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D. or D.O.) who has completed medical school and residency. Psychiatrists also have special training in psychiatry and specialize in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. A psychiatrist is able to conduct psychotherapy and prescribe medications and other medical treatments.

Because they are physicians, psychiatrists can order or perform a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests. Psychiatrists’ education and training equips them to understand the complex relationship between emotional and other medical illnesses and relationships with genetics and family history, to evaluate medical and psychological data, to make a diagnosis, and to work with patients to develop treatment plans.

A psychologist has an advanced degree, usually a Ph.D. or Psy.D., most commonly in clinical psychology. Psychologists often have extensive training in research or clinical practice and in psychological testing and evaluation. Psychologists also complete a 1-2 year internship that gives them exposure to methods of treatment, analytical testing, problem-solving techniques and behavioral therapy. Psychologists treat mental health problems with psychotherapy and other behavioral interventions.

Among the key differences is that psychiatrists can prescribe medication and generally psychologists cannot. Psychiatrists’ training and practice is more grounded in biology and neurochemistry, whereas a psychologists’ training and practice is generally more focused on behavior. Mental health services provided by both psychiatrists and psychologists are typically covered by insurance. (See Mental Health Parity for more on insurance coverage of mental health services and the law.)

Some people, particularly those with more serious mental health concerns, work with both a psychiatrist and a psychologist as part of their health care team.

In addition to psychiatrists and psychologists, a number of other types of professionals provide various mental health services. Clinical social workers can help individuals and families with mental health problems most often through therapy, counseling, and advocacy. Licensed professional counselors, licensed marriage and family therapists, and certified pastoral counselors can also provide care for mental health concerns.

Primary care doctors are often the first ones people go to with mental health concerns. They often provide basic mental health services or work in consultation or collaboration with psychiatrists or other mental health professionals.

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