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Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist: Which Is a Better Fit for Me?

Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist: Which Is a Better Fit for Me?

Deciding to seek mental health treatment is an important step—one that may feel overwhelming at first. What type of mental health professional should you see? A frequent point of confusion is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably in pop culture, these two types of providers have very different roles in mental health care.

Psychiatrist vs. psychologist

Both psychologists and psychiatrists are equipped to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, but they do so in different ways. The biggest difference is that psychiatrists are authorized to prescribe medication (such as antidepressants) for mental health conditions. That’s because psychiatrists have received medical training as part of their degree requirements. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a psychiatrist as “a physician who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and study of mental, behavioral, and personality disorders.” In other words, psychiatrists are medical doctors who focus on mental illness. 

Psychologists, on the other hand, have mainly trained in the field of psychology. They’re educated and trained to diagnose mental health conditions and develop and implement treatment plans, but they can’t prescribe medication (except in a few states).  

Keep in mind that both a psychologist and a psychiatrist can be part of your mental health treatment team. Many people see a psychologist for therapy and a psychiatrist to manage their medications. Whether or not you need both types of providers will depend on your diagnosis, symptoms, and goals for treatment.

Psychiatrist vs. therapist: differences in education and training

Psychiatrists hold medical degrees while psychologists hold doctoral degrees.

To become a psychologist

People typically get an undergraduate education followed by graduate school through a university or a school of professional psychology and earn a PhD, PsyD, or EdD. Clinical psychologists must then complete a one-year internship, and some may also opt for an additional one- to two-year residency in a specialty area of their choosing. They’re trained to conduct psychological assessments and use evidence-based therapies to help their clients manage their moods, behaviors, and thoughts.

Psychologists have several career paths open to them. They may provide mental health care, become a researcher in the field, teach psychology, or become a consultant for professional organizations.

To become a psychiatrist

People complete pre-medical training as an undergraduate and then four years of medical school. Next, they do a four-year residency with one year as a hospital intern and three years as a psychiatric resident. This is where they perfect their understanding of psychiatric diagnoses and the medications used to manage them. Some psychiatrists will choose a specialty area like addiction, child psychiatry, or forensic psychiatry. 

Differences in treatment

Psychologists: When providing care, psychologists use different types of therapies—for example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This is what people typically envision when they think of seeing a mental health professional. If a psychologist believes a client may benefit from medication for a mental health disorder, they’ll provide a referral to a psychiatrist to manage that portion of treatment.

Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists use medications to help address their clients’ symptoms and can also provide therapy. Psychiatrists usually spend part of their treatment time discussing symptoms to help fine-tune their clients’ psychiatric prescription(s). They know which medications are most effective for different conditions and which can safely be taken with other medicines.

Psychiatrist vs psychologist: How to choose?

If you’re feeling unsure about which type of mental health professional you may need, know that you aren’t expected to have the answer. Psychologists and psychiatrists are both trained in psychological assessment, and they can help you identify what care is best for your needs. If they think you need a treatment they don’t offer, they’ll refer you to a provider who can help. Here are a few factors to consider when choosing a provider.

  1. Is medication something you’d consider as part of your care plan, if recommended? At some point in your treatment, you may need to see a psychiatrist. If you aren’t sure, starting with your primary care physician or a psychologist is a good option.
  2. Is your main concern relationship-focused (for example, an issue at work or with a loved one)? These types of challenges often can be addressed by a psychologist without medication.
  3. Do you have a complex mental health condition that you suspect or know requires medication? In these cases, you’ll typically need a psychiatrist. 

When you visit a mental health professional, they may suggest a change or addition to your treatment plan. It’s important to base care decisions on professional recommendations to get the best support for your unique mental health needs.

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About the reviewer
Andrea Holman, PhD

Dr. Holman is a DEI&B program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Previously, she served as a tenured associate professor of psychology at Huston-Tillotson University. She served as co-chair of the health and wellness working group for the city of Austin's task force on Institutional Racism & Systemic Inequities and now works as a leader in the nonprofit Central Texas Collective for Race Equity that resulted from the task force. She has conducted research on understanding the psychological experience of African Americans and racial advocacy from the perspective of Black and Latinx Americans. She has contributed to articles (including publications in The Counseling Psychologist and Harvard Business Review), book chapters, national conference presentations, virtual seminars, workshops, and a number of podcasts on these subjects.

Clinically reviewed by
Andrea Holman, PhD
Program Manager, Workforce Transformation
By The Lyra Team
28 of February 2023 - 3 min read
Mental health treatment
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