Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What's The Difference?

Many people confuse psychologists and psychiatrists with each other, but there are some key differences between the two professions.

Finding the right medical professional to help treat mental health disorders can be confusing. Usually, your search for the right specialist will lead you to two types of doctors: psychologists and psychiatrists. Both psychologists and psychiatrists understand how the brain processes thoughts, emotions, and feelings and use that information to treat mental illness. But despite what you might think, psychologists and psychiatrists aren’t the same. Even though they both specialize in mental health, the two professions have different credentials and educational requirements. In addition to that, psychologists and psychiatrists have different treatment approaches to mental health challenges and focus on treating certain types of mental illnesses.

What Do Psychologists Do?

Psychologists help people cope with life issues and mental health challenges. When you visit a psychologist, they study the way you think, behave, and relate to other people and your environment. Psychologists also:

  • Find patterns that help them understand and predict behavior
  • Work with individuals, couples, and families to make desired life changes
  • Identify and diagnose mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders
  • Develop and carry out treatment plans
  • Collaborate with physicians or social workers as necessary

What Do Psychiatrists Do?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who evaluate, diagnose, and treat people living with mental health disorders that range in severity from mild and temporary to severe and chronic. Psychiatrists can also:

  • Provide urgent care for a sudden mental illness
  • Help you manage long-term mental health conditions
  • Provide second opinions and advice to other doctors and health professionals
  • Refer you to other health professionals
  • Admit you to the hospital when necessary

The Differences Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

Many people confuse psychologists and psychiatrists with each other because their titles sound similar and they both diagnose and treat mental health conditions, but there are some key differences between the two professions.

1. Education & Training

Psychiatrists Have Medical Degrees, Psychologists Do Not.

Psychologists and psychiatrists are both highly educated and skilled. Psychologists have at least 6 years of university training and supervised experience. Most psychologists have a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or psychology (PsyD) degree. Psychologists that have a Doctorate (Ph.D.) can call themselves “Dr.,” but they do not have degrees in medicine. Clinical psychologists have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors with at least 11 years of training. Psychiatrists begin their education with a medical degree at a university. After that, they spend 1 or 2 years of training as a general doctor before completing at least 5 years of training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists have a doctor of medicine degree (MD) and are required to learn all the systems and functions of the human body, how to perform physical exams, and specific treatments for each medical condition.

2. Authority to Medicate

Psychiatrists Can Prescribe Medicine, Most Psychologists Cannot.

Even though psychologists and psychiatrists treat mental health conditions, most psychologists cannot prescribe medication. However, with some additional qualifications, psychologists in the following 5 states can prescribe medication:

  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • New Mexico

Psychologists working in the military, Indian Health Service, or in Guam can also prescribe medication. The authority to prescribe medicine is much less restrictive for psychiatrists. Because of their medical degree, psychiatrists, in any state, have the authority to prescribe medication.

3. Treatment

Psychologists Focus on Behavior, Psychiatrists Provide a Wide Range of Treatment.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists talk with you about the problems and challenges you’re facing. But their different educational backgrounds allow them to focus on, treat, and approach those issues differently.

Psychologists tend to focus on your behavior patterns. For example, if you’re dealing with anxiety, a psychologist will track your sleeping pattern, the frequency and severity of panic attacks, and the negative thoughts that might be contributing to your high levels of anxiety. Based on what they find, they’ll talk with you, teach you how to change some of those patterns, and help you develop new habits to help relieve and manage anxiety. Their primary way of helping you cope is through psychological treatments and different types of talk therapy.

Psychiatrists also look at your behavior patterns, but they have a stronger understanding of biology and neurochemistry as well. This allows them to provide a wider range of treatment that can include:

  • Psychological treatment
  • Brain stimulation therapies
  • Medication
  • General medical care, including physical examinations, in order to evaluate the effects of any prescribed medication

Psychiatrists also perform medical examinations before providing a diagnosis. For example, a psychiatrist may check for thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies before diagnosing you with depression.

4. Conditions Treated

Psychologists Treat Less Severe Conditions, Psychiatrists Treat More Complex Mental Health Disorders.

Generally, psychologists treat conditions that don’t require medication. These types of conditions can include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, anxiety, and mild cases of depression.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, tend to treat complex conditions that require medical treatment and psychological evaluations, including:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Severe depression

Should I See a Psychologist or Psychiatrist?

If you’re experiencing life challenges and want to work on better understanding your thoughts and behaviors, you might benefit from seeing a psychologist. But if you’re dealing with more complex conditions that generally require medications, you can ask your primary care physician for a referral to see a psychiatrist.

Some conditions, like depression and anxiety, can be treated with a combination of talk therapy and medication, allowing you to visit both a psychologist and psychiatrist. In these types of cases, you may have regular therapy sessions with a psychologist, while a psychiatrist manages your medical treatment.

Regardless of the type of specialist you choose, make sure that the person tending to your mental health has:

  • Experience treating your type of mental health condition
  • An approach, personality, and manner that makes you feel comfortable
  • Availability and open appointments

Providing You With Expert Brain-Focused Mental Health Treatment

At StoneRidge Centers, we care about your mental health. That’s why we pride ourselves on providing you with world-class clinical care backed by expert-level neuroscience. Our treatment programs, overseen by a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, are comprehensive and customized to provide you with exactly the type of care you need.

You don’t have to face any kind of mental health challenge alone. Let us help you reclaim your mental health and manage challenges in a healthy way. Call us today at 928-583-7799 if you or your loved one are looking for compassionate care matched with evidence-based treatment.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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