What Is the Difference Between a Psychologist & Psychiatrist?

July 25, 2022

Perhaps you haven't been feeling like yourself lately or family members have been worried about you. Maybe you have faced stressful changes in your life or have experienced a traumatic event. Or perhaps you have been struggling for years with depression or anxiety. No matter what has led you to this point, you've decided to put your mental health first. As someone seeking treatment for the first time, you might ask, "What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?" Learn about these two professions to see which might be the best match for your needs.

Education and Training

Both professions strive to improve how people feel so they can live satisfying and productive lives, but the root causes of a person's psychiatric condition may determine the most suited professional. If the underlying cause is biological, a psychiatrist has the authority to prescribe medication as part of the treatment plan, whereas a psychologist does not. Medically based disorders can include bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Psychiatrists can prescribe medications because they are medical doctors (MDs and DOs) who have attended medical school, are trained in general medicine, and have completed further training in psychiatry As physicians, they are able to create a picture of someone's overall health.

Their medical training provides an advantage to diagnosis and treatment because some medical conditions can lead to or mimic depression or anxiety. Some medications' side effects cause the same symptoms of an emotional disorder, even when one isn't present. Other drugs can actually lead to psychiatric conditions (including suicidal thoughts, anxiety, or mania, for example).

Psychiatrists earn a four-year undergraduate degree, attend medical school for four years, and then spend four to five years in a residency program where they may specialize in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. They may also complete a fellowship that goes even deeper into their area of specialization.

Although psychologists are not medical doctors, they complete a rigorous path of education and training as well. Once they have earned an undergraduate degree, psychologists spend four to six years obtaining a Ph.D. or PsyD doctoral degree. They continue their education with a one- to two-year internship. Next, they pursue their license, for which most states require one or two years of practical work experience under the supervision of an authorized mental health professional.

Whereas psychiatrists mostly prescribe medications to treat symptoms, psychologists may focus on research, psychological testing, and/or therapy, to name just a few areas of specialization. If you are looking for help with a behavioral issue, personal or professional relationship challenges, or dealing with life's stressors, a psychologist is an excellent place to start. They can also refer you to a psychiatrist if needed.

Types of Treatment Provided

Although there are differences between psychologists and psychiatrists, they both will use talk therapy (also called psychotherapy). Talk therapy allows patients to understand their feelings more deeply and can improve their coping skills.

Along with talk therapy, psychiatrists also use medically based treatments such as:

  • Medication

  • Addressing general medical issues

  • TMS therapy (transcranial magnetic stimulation)

  • Ketamine therapy

  • ECT (electroconvulsive therapy)

Psychiatrists and psychologists both use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which gives them a common language in their frequent collaborations in developing a treatment plan. The DSM is a valuable resource and physicians and psychologists know it thoroughly, but they don't use it as a sole means of diagnosis. They use their own formulation styles to help understand a person, with the guidance of the DSM. 

Reach Out

If you're unsure if the underlying causes of your emotional challenges come from your biology, your behaviors, or life's current circumstances, we'll work through that together. The important first step is calling Bloom Health Centers. We can help you connect to the most appropriate provider -- whether it is a psychiatrist, psychologist, or even a therapist -- in our eight locations across Maryland and Virginia. Contact us today.