Differences Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

Millions of Americans seek help from a professional therapist, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist every year. They have needs like grief counseling, overcoming depression, fighting substance abuse, and helping with a strained relationship. Unfortunately, it can be confusing to know who can help you and how that professional will help. If you find yourself in a similar situation, where you know you need help but don’t know where to turn, the first step is understanding the differences between Psychologists and Psychiatrists.


Psychiatrists are Medical Doctors. They go to medical school and have all of the same training as any other doctor. Psychiatry is a specialty for doctors, just as Gynecology, Oncology, or anything else would be. These doctors must earn their M.D., then go through four years of residency in mental health, where they learn how to properly diagnose, treat, and prevent mental illnesses.

Because of the education background, Psychiatrists are allowed to prescribe medication. This is particularly important when considering who to consult for help. If you are severely depressed or suicidal, medication may be a necessary, immediate course of treatment.

In a team approach, where you work with more than one professional, the Psychiatrist is generally the lead. So if you meet with both a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist, for instance, the Psychiatrist will make final decisions on a diagnosis and course of treatment.


Unlike Psychiatrists who go to medical school, Psychologists get a Ph.D. in Psychology. They can then choose to specialize in clinical or counseling psychology. Once they complete the Ph.D., they are then required to satisfy a one or two-year internship before becoming licensed. There is no residency requirement.

Since Psychologists are not medical doctors and did not go to medical school, they are not allowed to prescribe medication. For this reason, many couples will go to a psychologist for counseling. The same can be said of those dealing with grief and substance abuse issues.

If a team is needed to help a patient, the Psychologist will generally take a backseat to the Psychiatrist when it comes to diagnosing and treating the patient. Instead, the Psychologist will often be the face of the relationship, meeting weekly to discuss the course of treatment and the impacts on the patient’s life.

Ultimately, both have an important place in the field of mental health and often work together. If you decide to meet with a Psychologist who thinks prescription medication is required, the Psychologist will bring in a Psychiatrist. And the same can be said the other way if a Psychologist determines that the best course of action is weekly sessions to discuss a specific issue or series of issues.

If you are looking for help with an emotional or mental issue, the most important step is the first. Speaking to either a Psychologist or Psychiatrist will help. And if you are still confused, reach out to your doctor for a referral.

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