When people find themselves overcome by mental anguish, they can choose from many different types of available therapies. Therapy and psychiatric treatment can be beneficial to those who are going through a rough time in their lives or who have been diagnosed with a mental illness such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. Choosing whether you receive treatment from a psychiatrist or a psychologist depends primarily on whether pharmacological therapy is needed. Often it is beneficial for patients to see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, as each treatment provider is able to bring to the table different treatment modalities. It is important that patients become educated on the difference between these treatment providers, as many people often mistake one professional for another.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors
Psychiatrists earn a doctor of medicine degree (M.D.) after they complete four years of medical school. After completion of medical school, they spend an additional four years in residency, the first year of which they work as a primary care physician treating a wide range of illnesses. They spend the following three years learning about the treatment modalities that are specific to psychiatry.
Psychiatrists spend most of their residency training learning about pharmacological therapy for every psychiatric disease. They become experts on drug choices and doses. In addition to becoming an expert in the pharmacology of mental illness, they also learn about different psychotherapies that are used to treat mental illnesses. After completing their four-year residency training in psychiatry, they have the option to practice or to further their specialization in what is known as a fellowship. This fellowship can include psychopharmacology, forensics, geriatrics, adolescents, neuropsychiatry and more.
In current practice, psychiatrists do most of the medication management. They often see their patients once a month to check up on them, see how their medication regimens are working and determine whether they need to change the medication or the dosage. Their primary focus is to evaluate and diagnose patients with mental health conditions using the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
Psychiatrists can request psychotherapy testing results and any brain imaging performed by other physicians, as these tests are valuable when diagnosing a mental disorder. In addition to diagnosis and pharmacological treatment, psychiatrists are also licensed to provide different forms of psychotherapy.
Psychologists are researchers, teachers or clinicians
Psychologists attend graduate school rather than medical school after they obtain an undergraduate degree. Depending on their graduate program, they can either obtain a doctoral degree, such as a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.).
A Ph.D. is typically awarded from a research-based graduate school, where candidates are required to produce an intensive research study and to write a dissertation. A Psy.D. is awarded to candidates who focus on clinical therapy. Psychologists with a Ph.D. will most likely spend the majority of their time teaching or working on research rather than on clinical practice. A psychologist with a Psy.D. is more clinically oriented and will most likely practice clinical psychology most of the time.
Psychologists do not have their medical license and, therefore, in most states are not allowed to prescribe medications; rather they spend most of their time practicing psychotherapy. Rather than focusing on the brain’s chemical imbalances, these treatment specialists focus on the minds and emotions of their patients.
The best of both worlds
Psychologists and psychiatrists often work together to provide the best treatment for their patients. It is not uncommon for patients to attend psychotherapy with their psychologists once a week and see their psychiatrist on a less frequent basis, such as once a month for medication management.
The Sovereign Health Group is a leading behavioral health treatment provider with locations across the United States that serve people with addiction, mental health disorders and co-occurring conditions. For more information, call our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author firstname.lastname@example.org.