Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Which Is Right For You?

In 2019, 51.5 million Americans received some form of mental health treatment. And this was before the spikes in depression and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health is an important aspect of our health that we need to take care of, at least as much as we do our physical health. But if you’re considering working with a professional in mental health services, would you visit a psychiatrist or psychologist? The terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same profession and it’s important to know which is right for you. So, what is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

What is a Psychologist?

To understand the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, let’s begin with the definition of a clinical psychologist. According to the American Psychological Association, psychologists study behaviors and mental processes within the mental health care field. Specifically, they deal with emotional behavior, the cognitive processes of the human mind and support patients in improving interactions within their social environments.

They are capable of diagnosing mental health disorders, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems in children and adults. If we compare the psychologist vs. psychiatrist, one key difference is that a psychologist doesn’t need a medical degree to practice. Instead, they can hold a doctorate in psychology or a doctorate in philosophy of psychology. Lastly, psychologists are unable to prescribe medications.

What is a Psychiatrist?

One of the similarities in the debate over psychiatry vs. psychology is that psychiatrists also study, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions. On the other hand, these professionals can use a combination of psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medication when dealing with patients.

Psychiatrists tend to deal with patients that require medication. It’s not uncommon for their patients to be struggling with hidden behaviors like suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and panic attacks. Within the medical field, a psychiatrist and a psychologist will often collaborate in determining treatment plans for patients.

Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist: What’s the Difference?

The difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist is so much more than the ability to prescribe medication. There are differences in their education, training, and the conditions they treat. Here’s a deeper look at psychology vs. psychiatry to help you determine which mental health professional will best suit your mental health needs.

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Education and Training

There’s a big difference between the psychologist vs. psychiatrist education and training requirements. A psychiatrist must have a medical degree to practice. Typically, they will also hold advanced qualifications after following both a medical residency program and a specialty program. For this reason, psychiatrists also hold the status of licensed medical doctors.

Psychologists, on the other hand, don’t need medical degrees to practice but still need an advanced degree, such as a PsyD or PhD. Both types of professionals need a license to practice in their area. In terms of the experience needed to practice, it largely depends on the state.

Conditions & Treatments

Another distinction in the psychologist vs. psychiatrist practice is the latter will typically treat patients who require medication to deal with their disorders. Some of the conditions they treat include:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia


Psychiatrists will use one of many diagnostic tools to help them get to the root of a patient’s problem, such as psychological tests, evaluations, and lab tests. If medication is required, they have a selection of medications they’re able to prescribe without external consultation, such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, sedatives, and stimulants.

When prescribing medications, psychiatrists will constantly evaluate the effects on the patient during scheduled sessions. Take note, just because psychiatrists can prescribe medications doesn’t mean they don’t also use other treatments, like psychotherapy, light therapy, and electroconvulsive therapy.

Psychologists also use many of the same diagnostic tools to find out more about a patient’s mental health condition. The contrast is in the treatment. These professionals use several types of therapy, such as one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Psychologists also use forms of play therapy when dealing with children to gain insights into their behaviors.

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: 5 Key Differences

Since these two professionals work so closely, it can be difficult to sum everything up and make an educated decision on which professional is right for you. Here are the five key differences between the two:

  1. Psychologists treat patients with therapy. Psychiatrists treat patients with medications.
  2. Psychiatrists work primarily with mental health disorders. Psychologists can work in many different fields because their profession is the broad study of the human mind.
  3. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication. Psychologists cannot, with some exceptions (five states allow psychologists to prescribe medications).
  4. Psychologists require an advanced doctorate. Psychiatrists require a medical degree.
  5. Psychiatrists tend to specialize in complex mental health disorders. Psychologists deal more with behavioral and developmental problems.

Should You Go to a Psychiatrist or Psychologist?

If you’re already within the mental care system, this decision may already have been made for you. But as someone thinking about seeking out treatment, you might be wondering which professional you should approach. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine which professional is best suited for you.

Do You Suffer from a Complex Mental Health Condition?

A complex mental health condition is something like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. These are usually chronic conditions that cannot be alleviated by simply talking it out with someone. A psychiatrist is the professional you need because there’s a high likelihood that medication will be required to treat your condition.

Are You Going Through a Difficult Time?

Everyone goes through difficult times, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’ve never been diagnosed with a serious or chronic mental health condition but struggle to cope, a psychologist is likely the best option. They can help you to better understand your thoughts and how to process them.

Does Your Child Need Professional Help?

Most parents are extremely hesitant to prescribe strong medication to their children. The medical community feels the same way and tries to explore other non-medical options before resorting to medication. The first port of call is a psychologist. They’re better able to understand developmental issues and can incorporate child-friendly therapies, such as play therapy, into their sessions. Psychologists are adept at spotting common developmental conditions in children, including autism.

Did You Experience Trauma?

Trauma can come in physical and mental forms. Whether it’s long-lasting trauma in terms of child abuse or recent trauma, like experiencing a major accident, the right professional depends on whether you’re struggling to get through the day. 

For example, a psychologist may be more appropriate if you suffered some mild trauma due to the loss of a loved one. Psychiatrists may be better suited if your trauma has become so severe that you’re struggling to cope with the basics of daily life. On balance, most trauma sufferers may want to approach a psychologist first. If medication is needed, psychologists can refer the patient to a psychiatrist.

Do I Need Genetic Medication Testing?

Genetic medication testing is a relatively new field. Many mental health medications, such as those for schizophrenia and ADHD, have unintended side effects in some individuals. These genetic tests are adept at studying how the body metabolizes certain medications and directs healthcare professionals to choose the right option for you. It’s vital in reducing (and potentially eliminating) the traditional trial-and-error process. Psychiatrists are the only professionals who can order these lab tests. Alternatively, you can contact ClarityX to learn more about how genetic medication testing works and how it can benefit you.


Now that you know the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, you’re more informed to make a better decision on which professional you need to help confront your mental health condition. Both professionals may be accessed either directly or through a referral from your primary care physician. If you’re already a patient and are about to be prescribed medication, genetic medication testing from ClarityX could be for you. To find out more about how genetic medication testing works and why it’s so useful for mental health patients, contact ClarityX today.

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