During times of emotional crisis, many people turn to a mental health professional for assistance. If you call your health insurance company, you may be given the choice between seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist, so learning the difference between these two professions is important. While both psychiatrists and psychologists treat patients with mental health and substance abuse disorders, their training and focuses are very different.
A psychiatrist has attended medical school, just like any other physician. During her medical training, a psychiatrist completes a residency in psychiatry that focuses on the proper administration of medications to treat mental health and substance abuse disorders. To be able to prescribe the correct medications, a psychiatrist is well-versed in the assessment and diagnosis of behavioral health disorders. While many psychiatrists may seek additional training in therapy techniques after completing medical school, this training is not required.
A psychologist generally earns a doctoral degree in either psychology or philosophy from an accredited graduate school. During her years in school, a psychologist extensively studies therapy methods, completing between 1,000 and 2,500 hours of practical work dealing with diverse populations. The focus of the internships and practicums include diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of mental disorders. Her studies include extensive training on research methods, and she must complete her own original dissertation to earn her degree.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists have vigorous licensing requirements. After passing medical school and completing a one year residency in psychiatry, a psychiatrist must also pass a knowledge test accredited by the state in which she is practicing. She must then seek a psychiatry certification with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology by passing a subject matter examination. A licensed psychologist must complete an ethics examination, subject matter test and pass a background check. Psychologist licensing requirements generally require post-education supervision. Minnesota, for example, requires about 2,000 hours of post education supervision for its psychologists. This kind of supervision involves regular reporting to a seasoned practitioner, who also may observe the new psychologist's work with clients.
Psychologists' main mode of treatment is psychotherapy, involving talking to a client about his problems and helping him think and behave in more productive ways. Common types of therapy used by psychologists include behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and psychodynamic. While there are exceptions, most psychiatrists do not practice psychotherapy. A psychiatrist's main mode of treatment is pharmacotherapy, and their focus is on finding the right medication for a client and adjusting and maintaining medications to maximize therapeutic benefit while minimizing side effects.
- A Guide to Psychology and Its Practice -- Psychology and Psychiatry
- American Psychological Association: What Do Practicing Psychologists Do?
- The Globe and Mail: What's the Difference between a Psychologist and Psychiatrist?
- Psych Central: Distinctions Between Therapist Degrees
- Minnesota Board of Medical Practice: Physician Application Option 1 (PDF)
- American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology Inc.,: Psychiatry
- Minnesota Board of Psychology: Licensure Check List - Revised 2008
Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.