Make no mistake: Taking care of your mental health is just as crucial as supporting your physical health. Of course, it’s also highly personal: Techniques and treatments that work for someone else on their mental health journey might not necessarily resonate as deeply with you.
This is where a professional can be really helpful. The right practitioner can work with you to find the best plan for mental health maintenance with your specific needs in mind, whether that’s psychotherapy, medication, or something else. Of course, job number one is finding a provider who is a good fit for you—and understanding the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is a good place to start.
A clinical psychologist is someone who has studied psychology at an institution for six years and holds a Ph.D in the field. A psychologist closely studies the mind and behavior of a patient. They will focus on a patient’s emotional responses and cognitive processes to see how this affects a patient’s response to their environment. Psychologists provide a space for their patients to share emotional or mental distress.
Verbal communication is one of the primary directives of psychologists, and over routine sessions, psychologists can work with their patients to address and console mental or emotional conditions. Through observation and study, a psychologist can diagnose mental health conditions a patient may be experiencing. They may also use psychoanalytic tools like cognitive behavioral therapy or (CBT). Psychologists are trained to help their patients cope with negative emotions like anxiety, depression, and anger management
Though similar in practice to a psychologist, a psychiatrist plays a different role. For starters, psychiatrists are medical doctors. In psychiatry, a patient is treated by a professional who uses their medical profession to treat their patients, many of whom experience some form of mental illness. A psychiatrist holds a medical degree (MD) or a degree in osteopathic medicine (OD) after having studied at a medical school, completing an internship at a medical practice, and finishing a residency at another medical institution.
Psychiatrists are there to not only diagnose a patient’s mental condition, but to treat and actively prevent emotional or behavioral disorders from worsening. They treat conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, among other mental illnesses. A psychiatrist can prescribe psychiatric medications for their patients as well, and see how it affects their mental and physical conditions. They will closely study the relationship between the patient’s mental and physical well-being.
While these two types of mental health professionals have a lot in common, the first difference comes down to what type of degree is being used for the practice. A psychiatrist holds a medical degree, and while a psychologist will have studied and analyzed mental health practices, they are explicitly focused on the psychology of the patient. Due to this, their respective practices look and function differently. If a patient is seeking medical treatment for their mental condition, for example, they might consider seeing a psychiatrist first.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists can observe, study, and analyze their patients. And while they can equally diagnose their patient, only a psychiatrist can prescribe medications for mental health disorders. Additionally, a psychiatrist may employ similar methods as psychologists like talk-based approaches to closely examine a patient’s behavior, thought patterns, and emotions.
However, psychiatrists do not always provide counseling strategies like psychologists. Psychiatrists primarily study the biological elements of their patients, focusing on both the mental and physical conditions of their patients. Unlike a psychologist, psychiatrists can prescribe psychiatric medication, arrange physical exams, and run lab tests for their patients. While general practitioners like your primary care doctor are also able to prescribe these medications, psychiatrists are often sought by patients burdened by more complex mental disorders like ADHD, bipolar disorder, or severe depression. If a patient was concerned with a condition of this nature, they may consider seeing a psychiatrist.
In contrast, while psychologists can still treat their patients’ mental health issues like depression and anxiety, a psychologist provides a supportive, conciliatory role for the patient being treated. Psychologists can strive to put their patients on the right path for a manageable life. Through suggestions for coping strategies and education about certain mental health conditions, a psychologist operates in a strictly psychological framework and will not prescribe medications to their patients.
There are many different ways that a psychiatrist and a psychologist might work together. A psychiatrist might make an initial assessment and diagnosis, then refer you to a psychologist for ongoing psychological treatment such as talk therapy. This can work both ways; a psychologist might refer you to a psychiatrist as well. Psychiatrists and psychologists also work together in hospitals as part of mental health teams.
Bottom line: Finding the right treatment means knowing what kind of practitioner fits your needs.