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What Is the Difference Between Psychologist and Psychiatrist?

When it comes to mental health professionals, there are a lot of titles that sound similar and are often confused for one another. When it comes to having names such as psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapist, it can be easy to confuse them. However, while these titles sound similar and have other things in common, there are several key differences between them. Two of the most commonly mistaken titles are psychologist and psychiatrist. While they are both, obviously, professionals in the mental health field, there are several key differences that separate the two. 

What Is a Psychologist and What Do They Do? 

A psychologist is primarily focused extensively on psychotherapy and treating the emotional and mental suffering of patients via behavioral intervention. Psychologists are qualified to conduct psychological testing, which can be an extremely critical part of assessing a person’s mental state and determining the most effective method of treatment. They will use their skills in order to diagnose the conditions of mental health disorders using interviews, surveys, and personal observations. 

One of the biggest differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that psychologists are unable to prescribe medication. However, with some additional qualifications required, psychologists are currently able to prescribe medication in five states: Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico. A common tactic that psychologists will use to treat their patients is talk therapy. This is a treatment that involves sitting with their patient and talking through any issues. Over the course of the sessions, a psychologist will help work with their patient in order to help them better understand the symptoms of their mental health disorder and ways to help them manage them. Talk therapy can be one on one, family-oriented, or in groups with other individuals suffering similar issues. 

While this may sound fairly straightforward, there are five different categories of talk therapy, and they break down as such:

  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy. This approach focuses on changing the problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts of a patient by discovering their unconscious meanings and motivations. This process will rely on a very close working partnership between the psychologist and patient. The patient will learn about themselves by exploring their interactions via the therapeutic process. This method is largely identified with Sigmund Freud but has since been extended and modified.

  • Behavior therapy. The focus of this approach is to learn the role that a patient plays in developing their normal and abnormal behaviors. The core principle of this therapy is that all behaviors are learned and, therefore, can be unlearned. The goal is to help a patient to identify and change their potentially self-destructive or unhealthy behavior using different techniques such as classical conditioning, desensitizing, or operant conditioning.

  • Cognitive therapy. The emphasis for this approach is to focus on helping people to identify and change destructive or negative thought patterns and therefore eliminate disruptive or problematic behavior. The principle here is that dysfunctional thinking is the root cause of negative behaviors and changing these thought patterns is the key to improving behavior.

  • Humanistic therapy. The method of this approach relies on emphasizing a patient’s capacity to make rational choices in order to develop their maximum potential. The goal is to help the patient to be their true self in order to lead their most fulfilling life. The key principle is that everyone has their own unique ways of seeing the world. This view will ultimately impact their choices and actions, and therefore the best person to treat someone is themself.

  • Integrative and holistic therapy. As opposed to having one set method of treatment, psychologists may employ several methods of therapy. By blending several approaches and tailoring the treatment to their client’s needs, they are engaging in integrative therapy.

What Is a Psychiatrist and What Do They Do? 

Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who have the ability to prescribe medication. As a result, most of the time spent with their patients revolves around medication management for treatments of their mental health issues. In order to help them diagnose their patients, psychiatrists will often employ psychological tests, one on one evaluations, and lab testing. When they have made their diagnosis, they will either refer their patient to a psychotherapist for therapy and counseling or prescribe medication. Some of the most common medications that psychiatrists prescribe are:  

  • Antidepressants: As the name would suggest, this medication is primarily used to treat patients suffering from depression. These antidepressants work by balancing the neurotransmitters in the brain in order to help promote a more positive mood and stabilize emotions. Along with the overall improvement in mood, antidepressants can also help a patient to receive adequate amounts of rest and to concentrate better.

  • Anti-anxiety medication: This medication, naturally, is mainly prescribed to patients who suffer from anxiety issues ranging from chronic episodes to more acute onset disorders. People with anxiety disorders will suffer from panic attacks which are real experiences of fear and terror that can be incredibly concerning. This medication will help to prevent these panic attacks from occurring or, at the very least, reduce the frequency and severity of them.

  • Mood stabilizers: Otherwise known as anticonvulsant medications, mood stabilizers are prescribed to patients that suffer from constant and uncontrollable mood swings. The most common conditions that mood stabilizers will help to treat are bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia. People that suffer from these mental illnesses have a tendency to experience uncontrollable spikes in their emotional state and mood stabilizers act to help keep them more stable and to act less irrationally.

  • Stimulants: The main reason that a psychiatrist will prescribe stimulants to a patient is to help them to better control their disoriented and unorganized thought patterns. Stimulants are most commonly used to treat patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This medication will help the patient to better focus on an activity without being so distracted by other events or thoughts. 

Similarities Between the Two

While both careers consist of treating mental health illness, the approaches are quite different. In fact, there are not very many similarities between the two outside of where they perform their jobs. This is a list of the most common places where psychologists and psychiatrists can be found working: 

  • Private practices
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospice programs
  • University medical centers
  • Prisons
  • Rehabilitation programs

Differences Between the Two 

The largest difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist, other than how they treat their patients, is the education required. The differences are as follows:

Psychologists will have at least six years of university training and supervision. They may also hold a Masters or Doctorate level qualification in psychology (PsyD) or philosophy (Ph.D.). Clinical psychologists will have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of various mental illnesses. They must take an exam to be officially licensed in their state. Some other areas that psychologists seek specialty training may include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Geropsychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Forensic psychology
  • Child and adolescent psychology

Psychiatrists are medical doctors and will have at least 11 years of training or more. The first step is to obtain a medical degree from a university, most typically a doctorate of medicine (MD) or doctorate of osteopathic medicine (DO). Following this, they will take a written exam in order to get licensed by their state to practice medicine.

In order to become a practicing psychiatrist, they must first complete a four-year residency. Psychiatrists must take an exam given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in order to become board certified and will have to be recertified every 10 years. A psychiatrist may pursue extra training in a specialty such as:

  • Addiction medicine
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Pain medicine
  • Sleep medicine

The Takeaway

Although psychologists and psychiatrists are often confused for one another, they are very different career paths. While they both work to treat mental illnesses, the differences in approach and methods are almost complete opposites.

The list of similarities for psychologists and psychiatrists is pretty slim but yet they still get mixed in together with each other. The goals for both are similar, to treat their patients and their mental health issues, but the approaches are vastly different. A psychologist will spend time talking with their patient and developing a relationship built on trust and communication. Through their talks, they will form a partnership in order to get to the root of the mental illness and attempt to improve the mental health of the patient.

A psychiatrist will focus more on the physical and chemical issues related to mental health problems and attempt to fix them via prescriptions and medications. No approach is better than the other, and often a little bit of both is the best remedy for someone trying to improve their mental health.  


  1. Psychiatrists and psychologists: what’s the difference? (yourhealthinmind.org)
  2. What Is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist? (healthline.com)
  3. Psychology vs Psychiatry” Do You Know the Difference (allpsychologyschool.com) 
  4. Different approaches to psychotherapy (apa.org)