What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

Reviewed by:
Nidhi Sharoha, DO
Associate Director of Clinical Education
at Talkiatry
June 23, 2023

At a glance, the words "psychiatrist” and “psychologist” may seem similar, and people tend to use them interchangeably. But while both psychiatrists and psychologists are equipped to treat mental health conditions, the two professions are actually quite different in their expertise and medical training.

Here’s everything you need to know about what sets psychiatrists and psychologists apart and how to know which one is best for your well-being.

Psychologist vs. psychiatrist: top-line differences

Clinical psychiatrists are highly-trained medical doctors (MDs) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) who are experts in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions by offering necessary evaluations, prescribing medication, and providing therapy.

Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, are not medical doctors but mental health professionals who focus on treating mental health conditions through counseling and behavioral guidance (talk therapy).

Both psychiatrists and psychologists can be part of an effective treatment plan, working together to provide holistic care and support.

Diving deeper into the key differences

There are more specific differences between psychiatrists and psychologists as well, specifically when it comes to methods of diagnosis and medical treatment, education, and licensing requirements.

Methods of diagnosis and treatment

As physicians, the care that psychiatrists provide includes diagnosis (via lab and psychological tests), prescription medication, and/or talk therapy.

Because psychologists aren’t medical doctors, they focus primarily on talk therapy or other types of therapy as mental health services. (In certain states, but not all, psychologists can prescribe medication.)

Education

While both psychiatrists and psychologists have years of specialized training, their degree type differs, as do the total years of training and career path. Psychiatrists attend medical school after gaining a Bachelor’s degree, whereas psychologists may pursue doctoral degrees.

Some careers in clinical psychology are available with only a Bachelor’s degree, while others do require graduate school and a Master’s degree.

Psychiatrists and psychologists may hold different titles:

For psychiatrists:

  • M.D. (Medical Doctor)
  • D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine)

For psychologists:

  • Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)
  • Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology)
  • EdS (Educational Specialist in School Psychology)

Licensing requirements

Both psychologists and psychiatrists go through an official licensing process; however, the requirements differ for each.

As doctors with a medical degree, psychiatrists must:

  • Graduate from an accredited medical school
  • Attend a four-year residency program
  • Pass parts I, II, and III of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)
  • For D.O. physicians: pass step I, II, and III of the complex exam
  • Apply to individual state boards for certification

Most states require psychiatrists to regularly complete continuing education hours throughout their career to maintain their certification.

The requirements for licensed psychologists include:

  • One-year internship
  • National licensing exam
  • State licensing exam
  • 1,000 - 4,000 hours of supervised practice, depending on the state in which they pursue licensure

When is it best to see a psychiatrist vs. a psychologist?

Educating yourself about the types of mental health care is a great first step. If you're ready to take the next step and start seeking care, here are some things to keep in mind.

First, you may not need to choose between a psychologist and a psychiatrist—although there are differences in the types of treatment and expertise mental health professionals can provide, they often collaborate on your care.

That said, here’s a quick guide to help you decide if a psychologist or psychiatrist is the best starting place.

See a psychiatrist if:

  • You’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition that are making it hard to go about your day-to-day life.
  • You’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition and/or have a family history of mental health issues.
  • You’re interested in exploring psychiatric medications, such as antidepressants, for mental health treatment.

See a psychologist if:

  • You’re looking for a psychotherapy outlet to help address behavioral or emotional challenges.
  • The concern you’re hoping to address is specific to relationship challenges, stress, grieving, or a life transition.

Not sure if your symptoms are severe enough to warrant medication? We always recommend consulting with a psychiatrist first to discuss your options.

About Talkiatry

Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. And once patients are paired with a psychiatrist, they also have the ability to see a therapist. Get started with a short online assessment.

The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Sources:

What is Psychiatry? | APA

Psychologist: What They Do, Specialties & Training | Cleveland Clinic

Know the Warning Signs | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Dr. Nidhi Sharoha is a double board certified psychiatrist in Psychiatry and Consultation Liaison Psychiatry. She completed her undergraduate training at Stony Brook University followed by medical school at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. She has completed both a Residency in Psychiatry and Fellowship in Consultation Liaison Psychiatry at Nassau University Medical Center.

Dr. Sharoha has held academic appointment at Stony Brook University Hospital, practicing as a consultant psychiatrist as well as the Associate Director of Consultation Liaison Psychiatry Fellowship Program. She has been deeply involved in teaching throughout her years

She has a genuine interest in treating a vast array of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, post traumatic stress disorders and obsessive compulsive and related disorders. She also has experience in treating patients with medical comorbidities and has training in issues related to women’s health.

Patients looking for a psychiatric provider will find that Dr. Sharoha has a gentle approach to diagnosis and management of her patients. She believes in the principle that body and mind are interconnected which allows her to provide comprehensive care to all of her patients.

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