Psychiatrist or psychologist — which one should I see?

September 06, 2018 | by Marc Browning, RN, Psy.D
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

People need mental health help for a variety of reasons. You may need help for a short-term issue like grieving the death of a loved one, or for something more chronic that’s interfering with your life, like long-term anxiety or depression, or overcoming an addiction.

You’ve heard of psychiatrists and psychologists. But what exactly do they do? And what’s the difference between these mental health professionals? It’s easy for those less familiar with healthcare to mix up them up.

In simple terms, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who diagnoses mental disorders and treats them with medication or another medical intervention. They can conduct psychotherapy but more often focus on medication management. Psychologists, on the other hand, treat mental disorders with psychotherapy and other behavioral therapy interventions.

Both are equally important. In fact, psychologists and psychiatrists often work in tandem. They share a common goal of improving mental and emotional health, and helping people feel better.

While each profession plays an integral role in a patient’s mental health, they each have different educational backgrounds, training and scope of practice:

How do psychiatrists help?

  • A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who has completed medical school and a psychiatry residency program.
  • Some have completed additional specialized training (such as in child and adolescent mental health, substance use disorders, geriatric psychiatry, or forensic psychiatry).
  • They are licensed in the state where they practice, and may also be board certified.
  • Because they are physicians, psychiatrists can prescribe and monitor medications, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedatives, hypnotics, mood stabilizers and stimulants.
  • In addition to prescribing medications, psychiatrists can use various forms of psychotherapy, psychosocial interventions and other treatments (e.g., ECT).
  • Psychiatrists work in a variety of settings, including private practices, clinics, general and psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, military settings, rehabilitation programs, etc.
  • Psychiatrists diagnose mental health disorders using criteria established in the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

How do psychologists and therapists help?

  • A psychologist has a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology (e.g., Ph.D., Psy.D.) and is licensed and certified in their state.
  • A therapist or counselor has a master’s degree (M.S., M.A.) and supervised training in a mental health-related field like psychology (LCPC) or social work (LCSW), and has earned state licensure.
  • Psychologists are trained to evaluate a person’s mental health using clinical interviews, psychological evaluations and testing.
  • These professionals specialize in psychotherapy (talk therapy) to treat a broad variety of mental disorders and emotional difficulties.
  • Psychologists cannot prescribe medications in most states, including Illinois.
  • They may have training in specialized forms of therapy (such as clinical psychology, school psychology, marriage and family therapy, or alcohol and drug abuse counseling).
  • Psychotherapy can be done individually, as a couple, with a family, or in a group.
  • Some specific forms of therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and other behavioral therapy interventions.
  • They work in their own private practice or a group practice, schools, hospitals, prisons, community health and mental health clinics, nursing homes, long-term care centers, etc.

Your primary care physician (PCP) can help you determine which mental health professional is right for you.

If you need medication to treat a mental health issue, your PCP will often recommend a psychiatrist (although PCPs can prescribe medication too). If you want to talk to someone about a mental or behavioral health issue, and learn how to better cope with thoughts, feelings and behaviors, you’ll probably be referred to a psychologist.

Many patients do well seeing both—a psychiatrists for medication and a psychologist or therapist for psychotherapy.

Need support to live a happier, more fulfilling life? Explore services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Meet the Linden Oaks Medical Group Behavioral Health team.

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