- One key difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist is that the former can prescribe medication.
- Psychiatrists typically have an MD versus psychologists who either have a PhD or PsyD.
- Both roles can treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and you may find you want both.
- Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.
Taking the first step in finding assistance for your mental health can be difficult — sometimes it's hard to know how to ask for help. On top of that, navigating the mental health care system and choosing the best type of practitioner can be confusing.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists study the brain, human behavior, and help people with their mental health. The main difference between them is:
- Psychiatrists are medical doctors who prescribe medications and have a median annual salary of about $208,000.
- Psychologists have non-medical doctorate degrees, cannot prescribe medication in most states, and their salary averages between $80,000-$100,000.
Practitioners of both of these professions might practice as and be referred to as "therapists," but therapist is a term that describes other professions as well.
Here's more on the various conditions that psychiatrists and psychologists treat to help you determine which might be more suitable for you.
What is a psychiatrist?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who mainly treat mental health through evaluation, diagnosis, and medications. They have much of the same training as other types of physicians, which typically includes 12 years of schooling (four years of undergrad followed by four years of medical school and a final four-year residency program).
Medical training for psychiatrists
"In medical school, students learn about anatomy and physiology and rotate through common medical specialties like surgery, OB-GYN, and neurology. After graduating medical school, they work under the supervision of a more senior attending psychiatrist and in a variety of settings including emergency rooms, psychiatric inpatient units, general hospital wards and outpatient clinics," says Carlene MacMillan, MD, the Medical Director for Osmind.
- Addiction psychiatry
- Pain management
- Child and adolescent psychiatry
- Forensic psychiatry
- Sleep medicine
- Geriatric psychiatry
- Hospice medicine
Given their extensive training as physicians, psychiatrists can consider a wide range of factors, from physical to mental, that may be contributing to your behavior and emotions. They'll also integrate any lab work and diagnostic tests into the framework of your treatment.
For example, sometimes depression can be related to a thyroid condition. A psychiatrist can understand this, order laboratory tests to evaluate your thyroid function, and treat your depression by giving you appropriate medical referrals to manage the thyroid condition.
When to see a psychiatrist
Macmillan says psychiatrists "are qualified to treat the wide range of mental illnesses listed in the DSM-5." Some of these more common conditions include:
- Obsessive Compulsive disorder
- Eating disorders
- Mood disorders
- Psychotic disorders
- Learning disorders
- Personality disorders
You might want to see a psychiatrist if you are "experiencing symptoms of a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, seeing or hearing things that are not there, having significant difficulty completing tasks, having trouble in relationships, or experiencing intense anxiety symptoms," Macmillan says.
A psychiatrist may also be appropriate if you:
- Want to explore medication options for your mental health
- Are in therapy but feel like you still need more support
- Are thinking of self-harm or suicide
How to find a psychiatrist
To find a psychiatrist in your area you can:
- Ask for a referral from your primary care physician and/or current therapist
- Contact a community health care clinic
- If you have insurance, use their directory of providers
- Use professional organizations' directories
- Search online directories
What is a psychologist?
Educational training for psychologists
- PhD: Those who obtain a PhD in psychology usually participate in research and experiments, teaching, and consulting, though some psychologists with this degree see clients in private practice.
- PsyD (Doctor of Psychology): Doctors of psychology usually are clinicians who provide counseling to people. Settings they may work in include private practice, hospitals and clinics, and institutional settings like schools.
Their course of study includes theories of human development, behavior, and relationships — biological, cognitive, and social — as well as ethics, statistics, and specific training in psychological assessment and different types of therapy.
When to see a psychologist
Like psychiatrists, psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses, however, the treatment does not involve medication.
Though it should be noted that there are five states where psychologists can prescribe medication if they receive additional training — New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Idaho.
Psychologists use evidence-based methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and psychodynamic therapy. They are trained to help people cope with life challenges and mental health issues and are qualified to treat anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
Other issues psychologists can treat include:
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Personality disorders
- Psychotic Disorders
In addition to treating the above diagnosable issues, psychologists help people with life issues such as stress, emotional problems, recovering from childhood abuse, traumatic experiences, relationships, grieving, and transitions.
Psychologists are trained to work with the full gamut of human experience, and a psychologist can be extremely beneficial if you need some extra support in your life.
How to find a psychologist
"If you know you have a specific issue it may well be worth your while to choose professionals who specialize in your specific concern," says Nancy M. Rivas , PhD, a clinical psychologist at Flourishing Lives Counseling Center. "It is more likely that they will be up to date on the latest research and treatment strategies to benefit you."
You can find a psychologist by:
- Searching internet directories
- Recommendations from family, social workers, pastors, or primary care physician
- Professional directories
Rivas says that once you find a psychologist "make sure that they have appropriate expertise for your issue, that the financial and scheduling arrangements work for you, and that once you have met them, you feel emotionally connected and comfortable enough to speak freely and honestly."
Psychiatry vs. psychology: Finding the best therapist for you
In most cases, it makes sense to see a psychologist first who can usually then refer you to a psychiatrist if necessary, says Rivas.
"See a psychologist first and then ask for their opinion about whether seeing a psychiatrist for a medication consult makes sense for you," Rivas says.
For example, you might find that talk therapy with a psychologist isn't effective enough for the level of distress or impairment your mental health is creating and choose to see a psychiatrist to explore the additional support of medication.
On the other hand, you might wish to use medication only for a short period of time, and when you are feeling more stable you might choose to discontinue the medication under the supervision of a psychiatrist and then see a psychologist for talk therapy.
Many people see both types of practitioners. "Someone may see the psychiatrist once every month or two for a brief 15-30 minute visit and see their therapist weekly or every other week for 45-60 minutes. Ideally the psychiatrist and therapist will coordinate as needed with the individual's permission," Macmillan says.
As far as expenses go, generally speaking a psychiatrist is more expensive than a psychologist due to their medical training, but many health insurance plans cover mental health services from each.
Typically, 12 years schooling and have medical degrees
8-12 years schooling, have non-medical doctoral degrees
Can prescribe medication
Cannot prescribe medication (with exceptions in five states)
Most often treats by using medication
Uses talk therapy methods to treat mental health
Biomedical view of human behavior and mental health
Scientific view of human behavior and mental health, but also provides support for specific life circumstances and events
Can treat conditions that require medication like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
Can treat conditions like anxiety as well as psychotic disorders in combination with medication management, but also provide support from the stress of day to day life issues
Both psychiatrists and psychologists have extensive education and training and are fully qualified to diagnose and treat mental health concerns. The major difference between them is in the authority to prescribe medications.
If you are thinking about seeking help with your mental health, consider whether you think medication will help.
If you are more interested in medication options, a psychiatrist is the best option. If you want to explore different types of talk therapy and learn skills to work through issues, a psychologist would be the best starting point.