What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Their titles may sound similar, but psychologists and psychiatrists have distinct jobs that require different types of training, testing, and licensure. Depending on what kind of help that you need, one or both of these specialists may be a good option for you.

First step: see your primary care or obstetric care provider

No matter who you ultimately meet with, it’s best if you start with a visit to your primary care or obstetric care provider. They can refer you to the professional whom they think is best qualified to help. Going forward, your primary care or obstetric care provider will be able to work with the psychologist or psychiatrist to get you the right kind of treatment.


The word “psychologist” gets used a lot, but it’s not a blanket term for anyone who works in mental health. Technically, “psychologist” describes a professional with a specific background and training.

  • Education: After completing undergraduate degrees, psychologists receive graduate degrees in psychology. This could be a Master’s, but more often it’s a Doctorate degree, like a Ph.D, a Psy. D, or an Ed. D.
  • Training: After receiving their degrees, psychologists must complete a certain number of hours of supervised training in their particular specialization (like addiction, depression, or eating disorders) or age group (for example, children, adolescents, or adults). The number of hours varies by state, but it’s usually 1-2 years.
  • Licensure: Once they have a graduate degree and supervised training, all psychologists must take an exam to get licensed in the state where they want to practice.
  • Medication: In some states they can prescribe medication.

Psychologists are often the first mental health professionals that people see. They provide mental health assessments, therapy, and referrals to other professionals, like psychiatrists, for medication when needed. Their practice generally focuses on the patient’s thoughts, feelings, and general health and how to develop coping mechanisms. This makes psychologists a good choice for people who are just starting to address their mental health concerns, and those who want to undergo talk therapy as a form of treatment. There is a large body of research that supports talk therapy as a first-line therapy for many mental health conditions, including depression.


Both psychiatrists and psychologists study how the mind works, and each have extensive training in their fields. But there are differences between the two that impact how they work with patients. Psychiatrists are medical doctors with education, training, and licensure as follows:

  • Education: Psychiatrists complete undergraduate degrees, then go to medical school to earn medical degrees.
  • Training: After medical school, psychiatrists undergo four years of residency to train in psychiatry. They can choose a subspecialization, like general psychiatry, child psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, or psychoanalysis.
  • Licensure: Once they earn graduate medical degrees and have completed four years of residency, psychiatrists take exams to get licensed medical doctors, and usually take subsequent exams for licenses to practice psychiatry.
  • Medication: Because they have a medical degree, once a psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor, they can prescribe medications.

Psychiatrists are more concerned with the medical side of mental health. While psychologists focus on patients’ thoughts and well-being, psychiatrists often lean a little more towards the medications and chemical imbalances associated with mental health and mental illness. Some are trained to perform counseling or psychotherapy, but that’s not their primary focus, and oftentimes a psychiatrist will refer a patient to a psychologist for counseling. A psychiatrist is generally a good choice for people who need medication treatment for a mental health problem.

You have even more options

While psychiatrists and psychologists are probably the two most well-known mental health providers, there are a number of other professionals that focus on mental health care too. Clinical social workers, psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners, marriage and family therapists, and mental health counselors are just a few examples of additional providers that can offer meaningful mental health services to people who need them. All of these different specialists can serve as an important resources, and usually it’s just a matter of who might be the right fit for your needs. Often times an individual who needs mental health care might be able to be seen by quite a few different specialists, and other times one particular type of specialist may be most appropriate. Because of differences in education and training, each different specialist focuses on doing different things for their clients. If you’re not sure which one would be right for you, ask your healthcare provider for guidance.

Read more
  • Raymond Lloyd Richmond. “Psychology and Psychiatry.” GuidetoPsychology. Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD., 2016. Web.
  • “Psychologist vs Psychiatrist: Which Career is Right for You?” walden.edu. Walden University, 2016. Web.
  • “What is the Difference Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Social Workers?” div12org. PDF from Division 12 of the American Psychological Association, 2016. Web.
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