Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Differences and Similarities

Mental health is arguably one of the most pressing health-related concerns we face today. Multiple research studies have shown that conditions — like depression and anxiety – are becoming more common every year. If you’re experiencing any type of mental health problem, it’s essential that you reach out to the right type of mental health professional as soon as possible.

Because psychiatrists are trained medical doctors, they can prescribe medications, and they spend much of their time with patients on medication management as a course of treatment. Psychologists focus extensively on psychotherapy and treating emotional and mental suffering in patients with behavioral intervention.

Psychologist vs Psychiatrist vs Doctors: What You Need to Know | MedCircle Series

What is a psychiatrist?

What does a psychiatrist do?

Psychiatrists use various tools and medications to treat mental health conditions that generally need medication as a treatment, including bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When meeting with patients, they might administer psychological tests and evaluations to better understand their individual needs. Psychiatrists can also order medical testing to rule out physical ailments that may be causing symptoms.

After diagnosing a patients mental condition, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication to treat the disorder. They often prescribe antidepressants, mood stabilizers, sedatives, stimulants and anti-psychotic medications. While the patient is taking the medication, the psychiatrist will monitor them closely, watching for potential side effects and signs of improvement. Psychiatrists also refer their patients to psychologists and therapists for talk therapy.

What is a psychologist?

What does a psychologist do?

Psychologists focus on therapy-based treatment options, including individual and group therapy, also known as talk therapy. The purpose of therapy is to help patients learn how to cope with their struggles and handle various mental health challenges and life-related problems. During a counseling or treatment session, a psychologist may make observations, conduct interviews and administer short tests to better understand the needs of the patient.

People may come to a psychologist for counseling or treatment related to:

Psychologist vs. psychiatrist: Key differences

It’s easy to confuse the roles of psychologist and psychiatrist. Their titles sound the same, and both professionals diagnose and treat mental health conditions. But, there are some key differences to keep in mind if you’re seeking mental health support or thinking about becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Education and training

One of the key differences between psychologists and psychiatrists is their education. A psychologist is not a medical doctor, but they must earn a bachelors degree, a masters degree and a doctoral degree in psychology. Psychologists study the biological, cognitive and social influences on behavior and also receive training in psychological assessment and diagnosis. Candidates often complete a postdoctoral fellowship to complete additional supervised experience before they obtain their license to treat clients. It takes about eight to 10 years to become a licensed psychologist.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed all the educational requirements to earn their MD degree. They study pharmacology, anatomy, biology, neurology and diseases. Psychiatrists also complete a four-year residency as part of their education, and some complete an additional two-year fellowship program in psychiatry. It takes about 12 years to become a licensed psychiatrist.

Authority to prescribe medication

Since psychiatrists are medical doctors, they can prescribe medication to treat various mental and behavioral disorders. Most psychologists are not qualified to prescribe medications, but in a few states, psychologists can also prescribe medication when they obtain additional qualifications, including:

Psychologists who work in the military, Indian Health Service or in Guam can also prescribe medication.


When it comes to treatment, psychologists mainly focus on behavior patterns, while psychiatrists provide a wider range of treatment. For example, when treating children, psychologists often encourage them to engage in play while making observations of the way they play and interact in a room free from limits or rules. Play therapy can give a psychologist insight into emotions that a child may not be able to express on their own or disruptive behaviors they exhibit when playing freely. A psychologist can then use this information to teach positive behaviors or communication skills through more traditional therapy methods.

Because psychiatrists have more training and a stronger understanding of biology and neurochemistry, they often treat patients primarily by prescribing medication. Other types of treatment that psychiatrists can provide include:

Conditions treated

Psychologists tend to treat less severe conditions, while psychiatrists often treat more complex conditions. Psychologists can help people learn to cope with stressful situations, overcome additions and manage their chronic illnesses. Generally, psychologists treat conditions that don’t require medication including:

Psychiatrists tend to treat conditions that require medical treatment and psychological evaluations, including:

Similarities between a psychologist and a psychiatrist

Both psychologists and psychiatrists focus on mental disorders and the behavioral needs of their patients. In this way, the work they do is similar, but what differs is the way they handle diagnosing and treating conditions. A psychiatrist and a psychologist may work together to treat patients with mental disorders, as many respond well to both medication and various forms of therapy.

Depending on the severity of the disease and the treatment needed, both psychologists and psychiatrists can treat these conditions:

Other related job titles in the mental health field include social worker, therapist, counselor and psychiatric nurse. Those who work in mental health may work in hospitals, medical offices or clinics, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, hospice centers or prisons.

Should I see a psychologist or psychiatrist?

If you’re facing life challenges and want to better understand your feelings and behaviors, you may want to see a psychologist. If you think you have a more serious disorder that may require medication for treatment, then you can ask your primary care physician for a referral to see a psychiatrist. If you’re unsure whether you should see a psychiatrist or a psychologist, talk to your doctor.

In some cases, you may benefit from seeing both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. For example, anxiety can be treated with a combination of talk therapy and medication. In these types of cases, you could have regular therapy sessions with a psychologist, while a psychiatrist manages your medical treatment.


Is it best to see a psychologist or psychiatrist?

The primary difference between the two types of doctors comes down to medication: a psychiatrist can prescribe it, while a psychologist cannot. In addition to offering treatment through medication, psychiatrists will often conduct talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy or other forms of treatment.

Can a psychologist diagnose mental illness?

A psychologist can evaluate your mental health using testing, evaluations and interviews. They will diagnose mental illness and offer you the therapy you need to address it properly. Some psychologists are also trained in therapy interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy.

Is it better to see a psychologist or psychiatrist for anxiety?

Psychiatrists. Like psychologists, clinical psychiatrists study, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and others. In addition to psychotherapy, psychiatrists may treat the psychiatric disorder by prescribing medication.

What is the difference between a therapist psychologist and psychiatrist?

Two Different Professions With the Same Goal

The difference is how these two professions go about it. While therapists focus on psychotherapy and behavioral changes, psychiatrists use medical treatments, including prescription drugs, to treat mental health disorders.

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