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Psychiatrist or Psychologist: What Is the Difference?

Psychiatrist or Psychologist: What Is the Difference?

For those that are looking to undergo treatment for a mental health disorder, it is common to see both the words ‘psychologist’ and ‘psychiatrist’ being used. Sometimes, especially in pop culture, these terms are used interchangeably. Both are very different professions from one another, but sometimes share similarities. It is important to understand what a psychologist and a psychiatrist do, how they contribute to the mental health field, and how individuals may interact with them.

How are they Similar?

Both fields of study deal with the mental health field, which not only includes mental health disorders, but also the brain itself. They study hard to help people, and sometimes both will work together in a team to better help treat someone who needs help. Both stay up to date with the latest discoveries and treatments in the mental health field. These two professions treat a wide array of disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Both also will sometimes specialize in different age groups, as each stage of life has its treatment methods. Treating a young child’s mental health disorder would not be the same as treating an adult with the same disorder. Both also use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to help find a diagnosis.

In a nutshell, both:

  • Can give a diagnosis.
  • Can participate/contribute to new studies in the mental health field.
  • Are required to stay up to date with new treatments and breakthroughs in the field.
  • Treat mental health disorders.
  • Sometimes specialize in different age groups.
  • Sometimes work together as a team as part of a treatment plan.

Despite the similarities, each profession does very different things.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, much like doctors that treat specific types of diseases and disorders, like an oncologist for cancer and a dermatologist for issues with skin, hair, and nails. A psychiatrist specializes in treating mental health disorders and will often focus on the physical aspects that could be causing the disorder. Sometimes an injury to the brain can cause a mental disorder. Perhaps someone with a substance use disorder is struggling with withdrawal symptoms and needs help to mitigate such symptoms.

Unlike a psychologist, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication. Only in a select few states can a psychologist prescribe medication, but only after they obtain a degree in pharmaceuticals. A psychiatrist may order laboratory tests and medical examinations to aid in both treatment and obtaining a diagnosis. These individuals can also perform medical procedures if needed.

So in a nutshell, psychiatrists:

  • Are medical doctors with medical degrees.
  • Can prescribe medications and perform medical procedures.
  • Treats the physical aspects of mental health disorders.
  • Uses medication and medical procedures for treatment.
  • Uses medical tests to aid in diagnosis.

What Is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a mental health professional that works with patients struggling with a mental health disorder. Psychologists do not use medications in their treatment nor are they able to prescribe them, though they may refer someone to a psychiatrist if they feel they may benefit from medication. Psychologists instead use forms of psychotherapy (also known as ‘Talk’ therapy) to help their patients. Examples of some of these treatments are Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Hypnotherapy, and Play Therapy.

Like a Psychiatrist, a Psychologist can give a diagnosis. However, a psychologist utilizes psychological tests instead of medical ones. Psychologists mostly focus on guiding a patient to make healthy choices and learn ways to cope with their disorders. They also encourage patients to talk through their problems and establish support networks. Many psychologists will work as counselors, such as the ones seen in schools to help children regulate their emotions. Usually, they are seen as therapists.

So in a nutshell, psychologists:

  • Are not medical doctors, but study for just as long.
  • Cannot prescribe medication or perform medical procedures.
  • Treats the emotional and thought aspects of mental health disorders.
  • Uses drug-free treatments (psychotherapy).
  • Uses psychological tests to help with diagnosis.

How They Work Together

It is pretty common for both psychiatrists and psychologists to work together in a treatment program. Usually, individuals start by seeing one or the other, who will ask them why they are seeing them that day. They will listen to a person’s troubles and will perform tests to determine what is causing the issues they are dealing with.

Emotions and the physical brain are inseparable, and sometimes one causes harm to the other. As a team, individuals will find care given to their physical bodies and emotions. Sometimes people have an improvement in their mental health after having an underlying problem rectified. Some require medication to manage symptoms enough to help them open up for psychotherapy. Sometimes in talk therapy, unusual symptoms are described that will prompt a medical investigation.

Not everyone needs a team like this to reach recovery, but knowing that the option is always there is sometimes enough to bring comfort to someone seeking help for the very first time.

Sometimes when you aren’t feeling well, you aren’t sure which professional to go to. Do you need a psychologist or a psychiatrist? Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, you don’t have to figure that out on your own.

Here, you have a team working for you that will help lead you along the way to recovery. You are always free to ask questions as we employ knowledgeable professionals in the mental health field that can give you an answer. Here your whole body is given treatment, so whatever you need to help you feel your best will be available to you. We are constantly keeping up to date with the latest breakthroughs in treatments and techniques to treat many kinds of mental health disorders.

Should you or someone you love be struggling with a mental illness, call (949) 649-2339 to speak with one of our helpful staff.


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