This Is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

Updated: Oct. 19, 2018

While these professionals can work together in a treatment team to provide help, their backgrounds, education, and approaches differ. Learn the key differences when it comes to psychologists vs. psychiatrists.

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Psychologists vs. psychiatrists: A matter of degrees

To earn the title of psychiatrist, a person must complete medical school—psychiatrists have the same medical training as physicians, and they have “MD” after their name. Psychologists can get a doctorate in philosophy (PhD) or in psychology (PsyD). One fundamental difference is that all psychiatrists can prescribe medication, while only five states—Illinois, Idaho, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Iowa—allow psychologists to write prescriptions.

The severity of symptoms can indicate a need for a psychiatrist, since medications are often needed to treat disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder. Psychiatrists also treat substance abuse by prescribing medications that can help cut down on the substance of choice as well as monitoring the physical symptoms of withdrawal. Check out the 52 psychology terms everyone keeps using wrong.

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Psychologists vs. psychiatrists: What the degree difference means

One way of thinking of the difference is their specialty: Psychiatrists are often focused on hardware—the physical properties of the brain and using medication to help balance brain chemistry. Psychologists deal with the software—they use therapy to help you gain insight into your mind and its patterns, and help teach how to manage or cope with your emotional issues. Try these 10 short daily rituals that can boost your mental health.

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Psychologists vs. psychiatrists: Treatment approaches

Both disciplines diagnose and treat mental illness. Psychiatrists will often use medication as a frontline approach, whereas psychologists rely on talk-therapy approaches. Often, psychologists and psychiatrists will work together to treat a patient, with the psychologist conducting therapy and the psychiatrist prescribing medications if necessary. Check out 13 things psychologists wish you knew about happiness.

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Psychologists vs. psychiatrists: Which is right for you?

If your symptoms involve suicidal impulses, substance abuse issues, or other high-risk behaviors that make it difficult for you to function, you’ll need to see a psychiatrist for medications that can address your issues—possibly in addition to starting talk therapy with a psychologist. A combination of medication—prescribed most likely by a psychiatrist—and therapy guided by a psychologist is often the most effective means to treat mental illness. Consult these 13 therapist-approved tips for finding a therapist you can trust.

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Psychologists vs. psychiatrists: Tools

Here, the two disciplines rely on the same criteria: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association. The manual classifies mental illness. In addition, these professionals may draw on assessments such as inkblot tests, personality inventories, and other screens that can give details into personality, coping mechanisms, and functioning.

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Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists: Practice

Most psychiatrists see patients in sessions that last a short period of time—10 to 30 minutes, according to research published in the journal Psychiatric Services. These visits are primarily about medication management, and they can be spaced one to three months apart. Part of the problem is that insurers reimburse at much lower rates for talk therapy, and this pushes patients to psychologists (who typically have lower rates), according to Psychology Today. Psychologists typically meet with their patients for 45 minutes once or twice a week; treatment can span 6 to 12 sessions—or longer if necessary. Find out 23 ways to boost your mood instantly.

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Psychologists vs. psychiatrists: Reaching out

Ultimately, if you aren’t sure which one to see, the important step is to discuss options with your primary care doctor. He or she can point you in the right direction—and offer more options if your first choice isn’t a perfect fit. If you are wondering whether talk therapy is right for you, learn the signs that you may need treatment.