Their titles may sound similar, but psychologist and psychiatrist are two very 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 good options for you.
First step: see your primary care provider
No matter who you ultimately meet with, it’s best if you start with a visit to your primary care provider. They can give you a referral to the professional whom they think is best qualified to help. Going forward, your primary care provider will be able to work with them on getting you the right form 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 an undergraduate degree, psychologists receive a graduate degree 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 a psychiatrist, for medication. They have extensive training in talk therapies, and are also trained to give psychological tests. Psychologists are a good choice for people who are just starting to address their mental health problems, or who want to undergo talk therapy as a form of treatment.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists study how the mind works, and each have extensive training in their field. But there are differences between the two that impact how they work with patients.
- 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 child psychiatry, addictions, geriatrics, forensics, and women’s mental health.
- Licensure: Once they earn graduate medical degrees and have completed four years of residency, psychiatrists take state exams to get licensed as medical doctors, and usually take second exams to become board certified in psychiatry.
- Medication: Because they have medical degrees, once psychiatrists are licensed as medical doctors, they can prescribe medications.
Psychiatrists are more concerned with the medical or biological side of mental health. They are trained to perform counseling or psychotherapy, but that’s not their primary focus, and oftentimes they will refer patients to psychologists for counseling. Psychiatrists are generally a good choice for people who need a thorough diagnostic evaluation, or treatment that includes psychiatric medication.
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.
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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.