Psychiatry vs. Psychology

Psychologists and psychiatrists both help patients improve their mental health, but how do their training and responsibilities differ? Learning the difference between psychology and psychiatry can help you find the right clinician for you.

Psychiatry vs. psychology: What’s the difference?

Psychologists and psychiatrists both focus on a patient’s mental well-being, but they approach that role in very different ways. If you’re wondering which to choose, it’s important to understand their differences and similarities.

What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry refers to a branch of medicine that focuses on diagnosing, preventing, and treating mental health issues. This can include disorders as well as emotional and behavioral issues.

What is psychology?

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. It looks at social factors as well as cognitive functioning, and how these things can impact people’s behavior

Psychiatry vs. psychology: similarities and differences

The biggest difference between psychiatry and psychology is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can perform medical tests and write prescriptions. Psychologists typically have advanced degrees and offer cognitive testing, diagnosis, and ongoing therapy. Differences can include:

Education and training

Psychiatrists and psychologists undergo very different training. Psychiatrists must complete medical school and a four-year residency. Though optional, most psychiatrists become board-certified with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They also must complete any state-specific licensing requirements to practice.

Psychologists typically have a doctorate, either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Psychologists also must complete a certain number of supervised hours and pass a state licensing exam.

Practice and treatment

Most psychiatrists provide treatment by prescribing medication. They monitor how patients respond to medication, including their symptoms and side effects. While psychiatrists can provide therapy, they typically only do so to diagnose and monitor.

Psychologists provide ongoing therapy, also known as talk therapy or psychotherapy. There are several different approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or psychodynamic therapy. Psychologists generally work with patients to help them gain insight into their conditions, develop coping skills, monitor mental health, and work toward healthy behaviors.

In addition to treating patients one-on-one, psychologists can also provide group therapy, relationship therapy, or family counseling.

Conditions treated

Psychologists and psychiatrists can treat many of the same conditions but in different ways. For example, someone with bipolar disorder might see a psychologist regularly to monitor their condition and develop coping skills and healthy behaviors. They may also see a psychiatrist for medication needs and to monitor how they’re responding to treatment.

In addition to helping patients cope with disorders, psychologists also treat life stressors and relationship problems. If you are experiencing a stressful life situation, such as a loss or job stress, speaking to a psychologist can help you cope with anxiety or other feelings.

Appointment frequency

Many psychologists ask patients to commit to a regular schedule of weekly therapy sessions.

Psychiatry appointments are often shorter and less frequent. You might see a psychiatrist for up to 30 minutes so they can check how you’re responding to medication. As you become more stable on the medication, you might meet with your psychiatrist less frequently.

If you see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, they will likely work together on your treatment plan and communicate regularly to discuss your progress and needs.

Ready to start your mental health journey?

Are you looking for a psychologist or a psychiatrist?

Not sure where to start? Ask your medical provider for advice or a referral. If you are curious about a treatment plan that includes medication, it may make sense to start by seeing a psychiatrist. If you are struggling to cope with a situational issues, such as grief or a divorce, you may want to reach out to a psychologist.

Depending on your symptoms, you could see both a psychologist (or another type of therapist) and a psychiatrist. If a psychologist believes you could benefit from medication, they may refer you to a psychiatrist and vice versa.

What can a psychiatrist help with?

Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat a range of mental health issues that may require medication. These can include personality disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia, attention-deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, and much more.

What can a psychologist help with?

Psychologists can also help with these issues but are unable to prescribe medication. In addition to helping treat disorders, psychologists can help with:

  • Life transitions, such as grief or divorce
  • Relationship issues
  • Anxious and depressive symptoms that don’t rise to the level of psychiatric disorder
  • Situational issues, such as job stress
  • Combating unhelpful beliefs about yourself or developing a positive self-image
  • Trauma or distressing events

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