What is the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist?

by drlazarus on May 7, 2013

Many people want to know how a psychologist and psychiatrist are different.

Education:

Both a psychologist and psychiatrist start with a bachelor’s degree.  What is different is what happens next in school.

A psychiatrist goes to 4 years of medical school and receives an MD degree.  As with all medical doctors, they then go on to get a specialty, such as pediatrician, surgeon, family practice, etc.  Psychiatrists go on to specialize in Psychiatry.  This allows them to provide therapy to patients and they are specialists in treating mental health disorders such as ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, and Schizophrenia.  They can also specialize in specific populations, such as child psychiatrist, substance abuse, and elderly.

A psychologist goes to higher education to get a Ph.D. or Psy.D.  Both are doctoral degrees in psychology.  Along the way, they may also receive their master’s degree in psychology.  Because a psychologist is not a medical doctor, they cannot prescribe medications.  Most psychologists will develop a career that is either focused on working with clients in therapy (family therapy, individual therapy, couples therapy, child therapy), or academic focused such as being a professor at a university which would include teaching and research.  Some psychologists provide psychological testing and assessment.

Therapy:

These days, many, but not all, psychiatrists have medication only practices.  This means that if you are struggling with mental health issues that may require medications; they are the experts in this area.  They are often used when people have tried medications through their primary care physician which have not been effective or have had adverse side effects.   Appointments for medications are typically once/ month to even quarterly checkups.  Some psychiatrists provide therapy and medication management.

Psychologists provide different types of therapy.  They may offer play therapy, child and teen therapy, family therapy, couples therapy, group therapy and individual therapy.  Most sessions are typically 45 minutes to one hour long in outpatient settings.  Many clients attend therapy weekly.

Psychological Testing:

In addition to therapy, some psychologists provide psychological testing.  This can include:

  • Learning assessment to look for giftedness or a learning disability
  • Testing for ADHD/ ADD
  • Testing for autism and aspergers
  • Testing for personality disorders and other psychological issues
  • Testing for intelligence

In summary:

In summary, a psychologist is a person who has a doctoral degree in psychology.  They are the highest level of training if you are interested in ongoing therapy or assessment.  They also work in academic settings such as colleges.  A psychiatrist is a medical doctor.  Many of them treat mental health conditions by using medications.  You would see a psychiatrist if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, attention issues, etc., and need medication to stabilize you medically, but may not necessarily want therapy.  It should be noted that some people receive therapy from a psychologist and see a psychiatrist for medications.  This combination works quite well together if you require medications.

About the author:

Dr. Steven Lazarus, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Littleton, CO.  He specializes in working with children and teens, adults and couples.  If you are interested in more information on if Dr. Lazarus can be helpful to you, please visit his website: www.drstevenlazarus.com

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