What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

A person affected by mental illness needs immediate medical attention. Whom should he go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist? Most people think both terms or medical doctors – psychiatrist and psychologist mean the same. Actually, they are not. There are a number of differences between these two mental health professionals. They differ in the type of education, treatment, etc.

Only when you approach the right therapist, the mental illness can be cured at the earliest. This is why we must understand the differences between a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

Let us understand the key differences between both to help a patient and his family to decide whom to go to. 

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist- the key difference

Education 

Both psychiatrists and psychologists treat mental health disorders but only a psychiatrist has a wholesome medical training of 11 years or more. They do a basic medical degree followed by a Master’s degree as Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. This Advanced degree is a residency training program in psychiatry like Adolescent Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic Psychiatry, etc. Then, they have to practise for at least 5 years in offering mental health care. In short, Psychiatrists are clinical doctors with their entire education in the medical and mental health field.

In contrast, a psychologist does his entire education in the field of psychology, and not medicine. He must have a least Masters or Doctoral degree in Psychology. They can have a degree as a Doctor of Philosophy – PhD or Doctor of Psychology – Psy.D. Their tenure of education spans a  period of 6 years. Psychologists can affix “Dr.” to their name, but they are NOT doctors.

Psychologists must write an exam to get their professional license to provide psychological treatment to the patient. Psychiatrists must get their certification renewed every 10 years.

Workplace

Both psychiatrists and psychologists work in a variety of settings. Their work areas include hospitals, mental health institutions, prisons, colleges, courts, etc. Most of the psychiatrists in the U.S. have their own private practice.

Type of Treatment 

The key difference between psychiatrists and psychologists is the authority they hold in the medical field. Being medical professionals, only psychiatrists are allowed to prescribe medications to mentally ill patients. Psychologists are mental health counsellors who can only use talk therapy and counselling techniques to treat patients.

On the contrary, psychiatrists can provide treatment through medication, psychotherapy, and even use brain stimulation techniques like Electroconvulsive therapy.

The difference in the treatment methods

A psychologist addresses the emotional state of mind of the patient and analyses his behaviour. But a psychiatrist tries to treat both the physical and emotional aspects of the mental illness. He even does a preliminary medical examination before offering the treatment.

Let us understand by means of an example. For a person with anxiety disorder, the psychologist analyses the patient’s thoughts, sleep pattern, and frequency of panic attacks. He tries to use behavioural therapy to help your change your habits to reduce anxiety.

On the other hand, a psychiatrist does a physical examination of the patient and looks for thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies before prescribing medication. Then, he may offer anxiety medications including Antipsychotic medications,  Anti-Depressant Medications, etc.

Psychologists can treat emotional disorders through counselling or psychotherapy.  But if the patient requires medical treatment with prescription medication, it is the psychiatrist you have to seek.

The type of tests taken

To offer mental health treatment, both psychiatrists and psychologists have to take some preliminary tests.

A psychologist may do psychological testing for the patient to analyze human behaviour. These tests include Personality tests, Attitude and Aptitude tests, Emotional Intelligence tests, and even Neuropsychological tests. 

In contrast, the psychiatrist does clinical testing along with psychological tests.

Mental health conditions treated

Psychologists treat only those mental health issues that do not require any psychiatric medications. They treat simple mental disorders like eating disorders, sleep disorders,  post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc.

In contrast, psychiatrists handle complex mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mania, severe depression, etc.  

Consulting a psychiatrist or a psychologist – the key difference 

If a person has behavioural issues that can be treated with counselling psychology, it is enough to see a psychologist. These mental health counsellors will understand your family history, the challenges in your daily life. etc and suggest cognitive therapies. 

If the patient has a severe psychiatric disorder that affects his physical health, he must go to a psychiatrist. Some acute mental health conditions like severe depression may need the mental health services of both.

Both psychiatrists and psychologists are mental health practitioners. Understanding the distinct difference between both helps us to approach the right therapist and get effective treatment for mental disorders. 

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