What Is The Difference Between Psychology And Psychiatry?

By Patricia Oelze

Updated March 09, 2020

Reviewer Karen Devlin, LPC

Since psychiatrists and psychologists work together in many situations, their treatment plans can overlap. And this can cause some confusion when looking for treatment for a mental health disorder or therapy. But there are distinct differences between the two that are important in which type of counseling you should look for. So how can you tell the difference?

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What Is A Psychologist?

A psychologist is someone who has a graduate-level degree such as master's or doctorate and has had at least one to two years of clinical experience. These individuals spend an average of eight years in school and two in training. A psychologist will either have a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) or a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) and will have studied courses such as behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, psychological therapy, treatments, psychological research, and personality development. Those with a Ph.D. will also have an extensive amount of training in research. These professionals have one of the highest levels of knowledge compared to all types of mental health.

Types Of Psychologists

Once they have been through school and had at least 2,000 hours of supervised training, they then must take a license in their state to practice psychology. These individuals typically have a specialized type of psychology that they are focused on, such as development, social, physiological, educational, or industrial-organizational psychology. These individual specializations each require its education and to specialize in any one issue; the psychologist must complete both schooling and training in that specialty. But what does a psychologist do? That depends on their specialization.

  • Clinical Psychologists focus on the assessment and treatment of mental conditions such as abnormal behavior and psychiatric disorders. They typically work in private practices but may also work in universities, hospitals, doctor's offices, or community centers.
  • Research Psychologists are trained to do experiments with statistics and scientific methods. They use their collected and analyzed data, tested hypotheses, and experiments to make conclusions to report them.
  • Developmental Psychologists focus on how we change and grow during our lifetime. They seek to understand and explain issues like perceptual changes, social growth, emotional changes, intellectual development, and even physical growth.
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychologists work in the business field to deal with workplace problems like behavioral and productivity issues. They work to improve efficiency and morale in the workplace by studying leadership, organizational process, staff behavior, and employee attitudes.
  • Educational Psychologists are those who treat students in the school system or teach psychology. They may also study how individuals work with teachers, parents, and other students.
  • Counseling Psychologists are centered on treating those who are under mental distress or have a wide variety of symptoms. The study is described as improving emotional and social health as well as family, work, health, etc.
  • Behavioral Psychologists, which are also known as behaviorists, consider that all behaviors are dependent on conditioning. Two of these types of psychology include operant conditioning and classical conditioning.
  • Experimental Psychologists use scientific methods to study behavior and the brain itself. They may research anything from child development to social problems and often conduct case studies and experiments.
  • Cognitive Psychologists use cognitive psychology, which is about internal mental states. These psychologists study ideas such as problem-solving, decision making, attention, memory, learning, and motivation.
  • Social Psychologists look at diverse topics that have to do with social behavior. Some of these include nonverbal communication, leadership, social interaction, and group behavior.
  • Comparative Psychologists work with animals in the study of animal behavior. This helps them get a better understanding of human psychology. Those who are comparative psychologists include geneticists, ecologists, anthropologists, and biologists.

What Do Psychologists Do?

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Psychologists use assessments, evaluations, and tests to determine what their clients need, and they have the necessary training to administer treatment. They can make diagnoses with these assessments and can provide the therapy needed in most cases. The psychologist must know their client's characteristics, personality, cognitive abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Some of the treatments that psychologists often provide include:

  • Psychoanalysis is a form of talk therapy that helps the patients and the psychologist discover thoughts and emotions that may be buried in the subconscious.
  • Gestalt therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps with relationship problems as well as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of psychotherapy that helps change the way patients behave by helping them change their thought patterns.
  • Cognitive analytic therapy, or CAT, helps clients figure out what may have caused their current mental health problems such as overly controlling parents or neglect.

What Is A Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in mental health conditions. They are either M.D.s or D.O.s, and one of the main differences between them and psychologists is that a psychiatrist can prescribe medication. Because of this, they must attend medical school to learn general medicine before going to college for psychiatry. They then must practice four years in a medical training program as a resident, typically in a hospital psychiatric unit. A psychiatry resident will see a various group of patients from children to adults with many different types of mental illnesses.

Like psychologists, psychiatrists sometimes specialize in one mental health issue or group. For example, some may only treat children and adolescents, while others treat mainly elderly patients. Some psychiatrists focus on an illness like addiction or family therapy. Others may be specially trained in working with those who have brain injuries or diseases, so they must know more about how the brain works.

What Do Psychiatrists Do?

No matter which type of psychiatrist one chooses to be, they are all more of a medical doctor than a psychologist, and they typically focus more on the physical aspects and treatments rather than psychotherapy and CBT. Some of the treatments that a psychiatrist will usually use include:

  • Medication such as antidepressants and antianxiety drugs.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, is the use of electrical currents to the brain.
  • Light therapy uses artificial sunlight treatments to treat the seasonal affective disorder.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, uses a magnetic coil to send magnetic pulses to the brain to treat depression.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation, of VNS, uses electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve to treat major depression or epilepsy when drugs do not work.

Working Together

Although some psychiatrists use psychotherapy as psychologists do, they typically leave that to the psychologist. They will work closely with a psychologist to make sure both the physical and mental aspects of the patient's disorder is effectively treated. In some instances, a psychiatrist will just send a patient to a psychologist because their issue is not a medical one, and they try to stick to the medical part of mental health. For example, if you and your significant other are having relationship issues, a psychiatrist will usually refer you to a psychologist or relationship therapist for psychotherapy.

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Relationship Troubles

If you and your partner are having relationship troubles, you may need to speak to someone. But how do you know if it is time to talk to a psychologist or therapist? If you and your significant other are spending more time arguing than you are talking or if every conversation seems to end in a fight, you could benefit from counseling. If one of you were unfaithful or you have trust issues, a counselor, therapist, or psychologist can help you. Any relationship could benefit from couples counseling because no relationship is perfect. That is not to say that you will have a perfect relationship after counseling, but you may at least learn why you and your partner are not getting along like you used to.

Sometimes you and your loved one just get in a rut or need some type of variety and excitement. Or if one or both of you have suffered from loss. For example, a miscarriage or loss of a child can be a major blow to the relationship and can tear you apart. Couples counseling can help you bring each other comfort rather than distancing yourselves from each other. Everyone reacts differently to this type of situation, but with some psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, you may be able to figure out how to deal with these emotions together.

Online Couples Counseling

Couples counseling or therapy can be done by any of these mental health professionals, including a psychologist, therapist, or counselor. Of course, everyone is busy, and nobody has time for therapy, right? With online couples counseling, you and your partner can be at home together or even in two different places. For example, if your significant other is at work and you are at home, online therapy can be perfect. Another benefit is that you do not have to make an appointment, and you can reach out to your counselor anytime 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because when you and your honey are arguing, you do not want to wait weeks or even months for an appointment. With online couples counseling, you can contact your counselor whenever you need them, and you don't even have to leave home to do it.


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