Although many people use the terms interchangeably, psychologists and psychiatrists have distinct mental health roles. While both can qualify to provide therapy, typically, only psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications. Let’s review the main similarities and differences.
What Is a Psychologist?
A psychologist is a specific mental health professional who can offer various services. The field itself is relatively broad, and psychologists can specialize in different areas of focus. Here are some common types of psychologists.
Clinical psychologists typically provide direct psychological services to patients. They use various theoretical orientations to treat numerous mental health conditions.
Clinical psychologists typically have extensive research and assessment training. Therefore, they are qualified to evaluate and treat people for different diagnoses. Depending on their preference, they may specialize in a particular population or targeted group.
Social psychologists study how interpersonal dynamics shape human behavior. They may evaluate different groups of people in assessing the impact of a specific stressor.
Most social psychologists work in research-based settings. They frequently conduct studies testing different humanistic theories. However, these psychologists may also be employed in settings like government offices, hospitals, private companies, and schools.
Forensic psychologists work within the criminal justice system to examine criminal behaviors. They often engage in formal assessments, specialized interviews, and evaluate individual mental health statuses.
These psychologists often work within collaborative settings. For instance, they may correspond with law enforcement, attorneys, and judges on their cases. Their role can help appropriately prevent, define, and treat criminal behavior.
Industrial-organizational psychologists are usually employed by corporations to promote workplace productivity and effectiveness. They use their background to collaborate on creating positive environments and improving employee satisfaction.
Typically, these psychologists engage in various assessments and employee testing protocols. They may work in leadership development or support managers in managing their teams.
Educational psychologists focus on learning and success within established school settings. They often work closely with teachers and administrators to promote effective academic interventions.
Some educational psychologists focus on providing direct support to students. Others may emphasize more in research methods or creating instructional classroom materials.
Psychologist Training and Background
Psychologists typically hold doctoral degrees, such as a Ph.D., PsyD, EdD, or EdS. Some states permit master’s-level clinicians to become psychologists.
Psychologists may have undergraduate degrees in psychology, but many of them hold degrees in unrelated fields. In addition, during graduate school, they must complete specific internships and postdoctoral training to be eligible for licensure.
Hours vary, but they usually range between 1500-3000 clinical hours. These hours are accrued under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. After obtaining their undergraduate degree, most psychologists take anywhere from 3-6 years to complete their education.
All psychologists must also complete any required state licensing exams. To maintain their status, they must complete any required continuing education units and keep their license in good standing.
What Is a Psychiatrist?
Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who specialize in mental health conditions. They can assess, treat, and provide consultation for patients in a variety of settings. Furthermore, they can prescribe psychiatric medication when necessary.
Psychiatrist Training and Background
Psychiatrists must finish medical school and pass all required licensing exams within their state. They also undergo at least four years of specific psychiatric residency. Most training psychiatrists spend their first year working in acute settings, such as inpatient hospitals.
After finishing their residency, many psychiatrists undergo the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology national board exams. Passing these exams makes them eligible to become board-certified. Re-certification occurs every decade.
Once completing their general residency, some psychiatrists pursue further training and specialization. Here are some common ones.
Addiction psychiatrists specialize in treating substance use disorders. Many people seeking drug or alcohol treatment benefit from medication to help manage their recoveries. Additionally, addiction is often comorbid with other conditions like depression or anxiety.
Addiction psychiatrists help monitor patient symptoms. At the same time, they are mindful of how certain medications may be habit-forming (and will often prescribe non-narcotic medication whenever possible).
Forensic psychiatrists work closely with the legal system. They focus on the relationship between mental health and criminal behavior.
The courts may refer to these psychiatrists to examine whether an individual is qualified to stand for trial. In some cases, they will help support institutionalization or higher levels of care for such patients.
Neuropsychiatrists focus on brain disease and brain injuries and their impact on mental health. Because the brain is so innately connected with personality, behavior, and motivation, it is important to have trained professionals who understand this relationship.
Neuropsychiatrists often work in specialized hospital settings. However, some maintain private practices or work within community mental health.
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Child and adolescent psychiatrists specialize in working with youth, and they typically only treat minor patients. It’s important to note that medications (and treatment options) are different for this population. Therefore, these psychiatrists often work closely with children and their families to establish an appropriate standard of care.
These psychiatrists may work within hospital or medical settings. However, many of them also work in non-profit organizations, schools, outpatient health, and private practice.
Geriatric psychiatrists exclusively focus on treating elderly patients. They have advanced training and experience in specific conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. They also understand how aging can naturally impact mental health.
Geriatric psychiatrists tend to work within established medical settings. Some nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, or hospices consult with these psychiatrists for providing effective care.
Do You Need a Psychologist or Psychiatrist?
If you are struggling with your mental health, you might feel overwhelmed by all your care options. Therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists- there are numerous options available!
The primary difference often comes down to medication. In most states, while both psychologists and psychiatrists can provide psychotherapy, only psychiatrists can prescribe medication.
With that in mind, many patients seek support from both professionals. For example, if you’re considering medication, it’s common to have an initial assessment with a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist will conduct a full assessment reviewing your physical and mental health. They will ask pertinent questions about your current symptoms and medication history. That information allows them to formulate an appropriate diagnosis (if applicable) and prescribe optimal medication.
Some psychiatrists will continue meeting with their patients for psychotherapy. However, many provide referrals to long-term psychologists or therapists to help manage and treat the condition.
If taking medication, you will likely still check in with your psychiatrist periodically. They will want to assess how well the prescription is working and review if you need to make any changes. If a psychiatric emergency arises, they often represent the first line of defense for managing the situation.
Moreover, your psychologist and psychiatrist may work together in reviewing your treatment. You will have to sign a release of information to consent to them corresponding about you.
When Should You Meet with a Psychologist?
There isn’t a perfect time to meet with a psychologist. You don’t need to have a specific condition or meet a particular set of criteria to seek help.
That said, many people benefit from psychological care when they feel they cannot maintain their current standard of living. For example, your mental health might be affecting your relationships, self-esteem, job performance, or physical health.
If that’s the case, the symptoms may reduce or disappear on their own. However, they might also progress and worsen over time. When that happens, the need for treatment becomes even more imminent.
Psychologists can offer specific relief and strategies for your unique circumstances. They will work with you to provide practical coping skills to manage your symptoms. Likewise, they offer compassion and support during this vulnerable time.
When Should You Meet with a Psychiatrist?
It’s typically best to consult with a psychiatrist if you want to discuss psychiatric medication. Even if you aren’t sure if you need medication (or if you feel ambivalent), they can help you review potential options.
If you experience severe mental illness, you may be referred to a psychiatrist automatically. This tends to be the case after hospitalization or when receiving some other form of intensive services. The psychiatrist can help with initial symptom stabilization and mental health relief.
Most people don’t meet with psychiatrists solely for psychotherapy. Because psychiatric services tend to be more expensive, the services are typically reserved for establishing medication and testing needs.
Medication can be a complex issue. It’s normal for people to engage in a trial-and-error process when finding the right combination for their needs. Likewise, some patients only take medication for a short period of time. They may return to it if their symptoms reemerge or escalate.
How Do You Find a Psychologist or Psychiatrist?
As mentioned, both psychologists and psychiatrists work in a variety of settings. If you are seeking care for yourself, here are some common options for pursuing treatment.
Using Health Insurance
Your health insurance will likely subsidize some or all of your mental health services. You should consult with your insurance company to determine any deductibles or copays.
Make sure that you meet with a provider who is in-network with your insurance. If they are in-network, that means they contract with your health insurance plan. The fees correspond with your plan’s stated fees.
Keep in mind that some mental health professionals provide superbills if they are not in-network. A superbill is an itemized list of services. It allows patients to bill their insurance directly. However, reimbursement is not guaranteed. Instead, it is based on your insurance’s discretion and the type of coverage you currently hold.
You can ask your insurance for a list of direct providers. Keep in mind that not all clinicians will be accepting new patients. You may be put on a waitlist or given other referrals within your healthcare network.
Most psychologists and psychiatrists offer private fees for their patients. The initial consultation tends to cost more, and then subsequent sessions stay at a fixed rate. Assessments and testing typically cost extra.
Paying out-of-pocket can be advantageous if you don’t want to use your insurance for your care. It may also be the best option if you need specialized treatment or really want to work with a specific provider.
This option tends to give you the “fastest” treatment. In other words, you have the greatest pool of candidates who can help you. Therefore, you may not be subjected to long wait times or a limited number of sessions.
You can look for a psychologist or psychiatrist online using a trusted directory or simply searching in your local area. You might also ask friends, family, or other trusted contacts for referrals. If you have a good relationship with your primary care physician, they may also have some options for you.
Receiving Low-Cost Services
Most communities offer community mental health, non-profit, or sliding scale services. These options vary based on your location. The facilities often base their criteria by reviewing your current income and specific care needs.
The number of sessions, however, may be limited. In these settings, it’s common to work with training professionals working under a supervisor. While they may have less experience, they still have the required training and professionalism needed to help you.
If cost is a significant concern, keep in mind that some private practice clinicians offer sliding scale or pro bono services. It’s always worth asking during your initial consultation.
There are numerous mental health professionals who can help you. If you aren’t sure, it never hurts to start with someone- all providers will engage in a formal assessment to establish your next steps.
Likewise, psychologists and psychiatrists often work together in creating effective treatment plans for their patients. But as a consumer, knowing what each professional offers can be beneficial in making the best informed decision for your care.
If you are struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out today! You deserve support and treatment.