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The Difference Between a Psychologist and Psychiatrist (and Why It Matters)

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When you need mental healthcare, the different terminology can be confusing. Do you need a psychiatrist? A psychologist? What’s the difference between the two, anyway?

Both psychiatrists and psychologists are licensed professionals who have undergone extensive training for treating mental health conditions. However, there’s a distinct difference that does make a difference in what role they’ll play in your treatment. Here’s a breakdown of the difference between the two.

A psychiatrist has a medical degree and residency training

In order to practice psychiatry, a psychiatrist is required to graduate from medical school, complete a four-year residency program where they obtain additional training, after which they must pass an exam administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They’re required to re-take this exam every ten years to maintain their certification.

One of the biggest differences is that a psychiatrist is able to prescribe medication, whereas a psychologist usually cannot. (The exceptions to this are if you live in Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana or New Mexico, where a psychologist can receive additional training to prescribe medication. Some psychologists who work in the military or for the federal government are also able to prescribe medication.)

If part of your mental healthcare treatment plan includes medication, you will most likely need to see a psychiatrist. In addition to being able to prescribe medication, psychiatrists are also trained in talk therapy, and are equipped to either perform or request a number of tests that can help assess the physical and mental factors underlying a patient’s condition.

A psychologist has a doctoral degree and additional clinical training

In order to become licensed to practice, a psychologist must obtain a doctoral degree in psychology, complete 1-2 years of additional training with a focus on gaining practical experience working with patients, after which they take a licensing exam that allows them to practice in their state.

In terms of what differentiate the two types of professionals, psychologists focus on assessing and treating a patient’s behavior, whereas a psychiatrist is also equipped to assess and treat the underlying physical component to mental health disorders.

As for what a psychologist’s job entails, they will assess a patient needs, after which they will work with them to address major life issues, as well as mental health issues. This will often take the form of talk therapy. Depending on the patient’s needs and preferences, the type of therapy can vary. Most psychologists are trained in at least a few different modalities of therapy so they can adapt to a patient’s needs.

One important distinction to note is that “psychologist” is a very specific title. Although a psychologist may informally refer to themselves as a therapist or a counselor, other mental health professionals can use those titles as well. For a mental health professional to call themselves a psychologist, they’re required to have a doctorate in psychology, additional clinical training, and state licensing.

How to choose between a psychiatrist and psychologist

Seeing a psychiatrist versus a psychologist comes down to what services you need. If you need medication or laboratory tests, then you will need to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. If you need talk therapy, then you will likely go see a psychologist. If you need both, then you will most likely need to see both.

The good news is that if you go to a psychiatrist and you end up also needing the services of a psychologist, or vice versa, they’ll often have recommendations for what services you need, as well as which professionals might be a good fit.

If you find yourself stuck on whether you need a psychiatrist or a psychologist, the most important step is to make that first appointment and go from there.

 

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