Psychology vs. Psychiatry Differences

If you are considering a career in mental health, social work or therapy, it helps to understand the terminology and the roles that different types of professionals play in caring for individuals in need. The field of psychology is broad and encompasses a wide range of functions, and it’s important to understand what they are.

What Is The Difference Between Psychology And Psychiatry?

While there are several differences in these two fields, the primary difference between psychology and psychiatry is that a psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor. As such, the psychiatrist is able to prescribe medications and determine a course of treatment for a patient who is struggling with a mental illness or disorder. A psychologist may diagnose and treat a patient or client, but does not in most cases prescribe medications.

What Does A Psychiatrist Do?

A psychiatrist helps individuals with their mental health issues, just like a psychologist does, however, there are some key differences in approach. For example, since a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, he or she will be better able to diagnose issues that a person may be having that are not related to their mental health, but may be affecting it. Some examples include vitamin deficiencies, diseases such as diabetes and other physiological causes. Many people don’t realize how much something like an insulin imbalance can affect mental health, or how different medications may interact with each other and create a problem. Injuries can play a role in mental health and behavior as well. And, there are a number of neurological issues that may cause or contribute to mental distress and symptoms. A psychiatrist has the medical background needed to pinpoint and address these issues.

A psychiatrist can assess and diagnose a patient, and can map out a treatment plan, as well as prescribe and dispense medications. Typically, a psychiatrist will see a patient periodically to check in with them and evaluate their progress, making changes to the treatment plan as needed.

A psychiatrist will often work in a hospital, clinic or agency, and may also work in a private practice. Typically, a psychiatrist spends less time in the therapist role and more time in the doctor role. He or she may refer patients to therapy or other community resources, and may help the patient set goals for their treatment.

What Does A Psychologist Do?

A psychologist does many of the same things a psychiatrist does, however, he or she is not a medical doctor. Psychologists typically have a master’s degree, but may have a Ph.D. as well. Like a psychiatrist, a psychologist may assess and diagnose a patient, and may work in a hospital, agency or private practice. However, a psychologist is not a doctor, and does not usually have the ability to prescribe medication.

A psychologist may work in many settings and with a variety of patients or clients. Often, a psychologist will work as a therapist for families, couples, children or individuals. He or she may also choose to work in a specific area, such as severe mental illness, or with specific populations, such as those in the criminal justice system. A psychologist may work closely with a psychiatrist to provide care for clients or patients.

Psychologists use a variety of therapies to work with and help clients including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or more humanistic types of talk therapy, or may use art therapy or a combination of therapies. Some typical reasons people seek out the care of a psychologist may include:

  • Feelings of persistent sadness or anxiety
  • Difficulty dealing with a loss such as divorce or a death
  • Trouble communicating with or relating with loved ones
  • Difficulty managing anger or other powerful emotions
  • Troubling behaviors, such as stealing, lying or acting in sexually inappropriate ways

During the course of treatment, a psychologist may make a determination that a person’s difficulties are actually symptoms of a mental disorder. For example, a person who has come to therapy because of specific behaviors may be diagnosed by the psychologist as having bipolar disorder. At this point, the psychologist will often refer the client to a psychiatrist to help determine what type of medications are appropriate to treat the disorder. A very important part of the psychologist’s job is to pick up on clues that a person may be going through more than typical ups and downs, and may need more intensive intervention. Consulting a psychiatrist can help uncover whether or not medical intervention is necessary. For many mental health issues, a combination of medication and therapy is necessary in order to stabilize a patient who is in crisis.

Educational Requirements For Psychiatrists vs. Psychologists

A psychiatrist must obtain a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university, then earn a degree from a medical doctor program. From there, he or she will need to complete a residency in order to become licensed as a psychiatrist. This is a lengthy and challenging process, but it is doable. Upon completing a bachelor’s degree, those interested in medical school will need to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) in order to be considered for medical program acceptance. The length of time it takes to become a licensed psychiatrist can be up to 12 years, if you include the time it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.

A psychologist will also obtain a bachelor’s degree, and will follow that up with a doctorate program, earning a Ph.D.  A psychologist will be required to spend some time practicing under supervision before they become licensed. From start to finish, the process of becoming a licensed psychologist will typically take about eight years. It’s important to note that ongoing education will be required in order to maintain licensing.

It’s a good idea to thoroughly research the educational requirements needed to get into the field you are interested in. The process of becoming a psychiatrist is rigorous, and so is becoming a psychologist, however, both are rewarding and lucrative careers.