When looking for the right mental health provider, you may find yourself wondering whether to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Often times, the terms psychiatrist and psychologist are used interchangeably. Though they have overlapping responsibilities, there are three district differences between psychiatrists and psychologists. Understanding these key distinctions will help you make the best decision for your situation.

Education and Training

While both psychiatrists and psychologists have the title “Dr.” in front of their names, their education and training backgrounds are quite different. Psychiatrists are physicians, with the formal medical designation of M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Psychiatrists receive the same training as any other physician during their four years of medical school, but go on to specialize in psychiatry after graduation. Following the intern year, psychiatrists will continue on to complete a four-year psychiatric residency.

Psychologists, on the other hand, are not physicians and do not attend medical school. Instead, they attend doctoral programs and receive either a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) or a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology). A Ph.D. indicates a research-based program, while a Psy.D. indicates a practice-oriented program. However, both degrees are accredited by the American Psychological Association and focus on the clinical practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs generally take five to seven years to complete, with an additional one to two years of post-doctoral internship before gaining licensure.

Prescriptive Authority and Scope of Practice

One of the major distinguishers between psychiatrists and psychologists can be seen in their scope of practice, particularly related to their prescriptive authority. As medical doctors, psychiatrists are primarily responsible for diagnosing mental disorders and prescribing proper mental health medications. With a focus on chemical imbalances in the brain, psychiatrists help people navigate the right prescriptions at the correct dosage.

With the exception of a few states, psychologists do not have the authority to prescribe mental health medications, though they do receive some training in psychopharmacology. However, like psychiatrists, psychologists can diagnose mental health conditions using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Psychologists may also utilize psychological and neuropsychological tests to diagnose, which they have the appropriate training to administer and interpret.

Treatment Approach

Though psychiatrists receive training in psychotherapy, their primary focus is on medication management rather than therapy. Primary care physicians often refer patients to a psychiatrist if a mental health concern needs to be addressed with the proper medication. Psychiatrists use the criteria from the DSM-5 to diagnose, and may also use the results from psychological testing, CT scans, and clinical chemistry testing to inform their decision making process. In addition, psychiatrists may also utilize genetic testing to identify the most appropriate medication to prescribe.

Psychologists address behavioral and emotional needs through a range of therapy techniques. Primary care doctors often refer to psychologists for further assessment and treatment of mental health concerns. Psychologists perform psychological testing to assess and diagnose, and also focus on treatment through psychosocial therapy techniques. Therapy approaches may vary depending on the severity of symptoms, the preference of the psychologist, and the need of the client. While psychologists offer treatment to individuals, they also work with families, couples, and groups.

Though there are distinct differences in their approaches, psychiatrists and psychologists work together to coordinate a full scope of care. Psychiatrists may refer to a psychologist for additional support through counseling or further assessment through psychological testing, and psychologists may refer to a psychiatrist for supplementary help through medication management.

Working Together

At LifeStance Health, our clinical team works hand-in-hand to provide you with the best care possible. Our caring psychiatrists and psychologists will walk alongside you to help you determine the best course of treatment for your situation, whether through medication management, counseling, or psychological testing. To learn more about our services or to schedule an appointment, get in touch with us today!