What's The Difference Between A Psychologist And A Psychiatrist?

Choosing the right specialist for your mental health needs can be challenging, especially when it comes to deciding between the two most common specialists in the mental health space: psychiatrists and psychologists. Because both have important distinctions, knowing how each one differs can guide you toward the right specialist for your needs. 

Let's first compare education and training backgrounds. Psychiatrists have to complete undergraduate studies, medical school, and 2,000 hours in a clinical residency. Coursework is mainly focused on human biology, medicine, and anatomy (via Psychology.org). Thus, psychiatrists have roughly 12+ years of educational training in total. They may also continue their education through board certification. Psychiatrists typically have MD or Ph.D. after their names as well.

Training and educational backgrounds for psychologists differ from psychiatrists. Psychologists hold an undergraduate and graduate degree in psychology, have obtained a doctoral degree, have undergone 2,000 hours of a clinical internship, and have obtained state licensure. Their studies focus mainly on human development and behavior. They may have a Psy.D. or Ph.D. after their name (via Psychology.org). Most practicing psychologists have roughly 8 years of educational training (via American Psychological Association).

The treatment strategies of psychologists and psychiatrists

Treatment strategies are another big distinguishing factor between psychologists and psychiatrists. A primary difference is that psychiatrists can prescribe medication. Thus, much of what psychiatrists focus on with patient care is accurately diagnosing mental health conditions, medication planning, and medication management. Finding the right medication, combinations of medications, and dosages can take time. Typically, medication takes several weeks to take effect and can come with unpleasant side effects.

Another important role of psychiatrists is to try to balance treatment plans and quality of life strategies that take side effect management into effect. Because psychiatrists focus mainly on medication, they typically don't offer talk or behavioral therapy. Psychologists, on the other hand, focus on human behavior rather than the biological mechanisms of mental health. They often utilize counseling and talk therapy techniques in order to work through challenging situations. Because a mental health strategy may require both biological and behavioral approaches, a patient may receive simultaneous treatment from both a psychologist and a psychiatrist (via American Psychological Association).

Other important considerations for your mental health

Education and experience are typically just the first steps in finding the right specialist for you. The American Psychology Association (APA) encourages patients to take into account their level of comfort with a particular mental health specialist. Finding the right specialist may mean getting referrals from friends, family, or another doctor. Additionally, you may want to trial a specialist to see if he or she is right for you. 

It may also help to ask about their level of expertise in treating individuals with similar symptoms. This can give you peace of mind, knowing they understand what you're going through. Generally speaking, many forms of therapy performed by a psychologist can effectively reduce depression and anxiety. Research suggests that most individuals who complete at least a few sessions with a psychologist are better off than those who don't get treated at all. As many as 50% of patients see improvement after roughly 8 sessions, and 75% improved after completing 6 months of therapy (via APA). 

While it may seem scary to start the journey toward mental health recovery, taking the first step can feel empowering and hopeful. Knowing recovery can take time and that your journey may be non-linear can help set the right expectations on your path to healing.