Many people do not understand the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Although both professions provide psychotherapy, there are many differences between the two. Simply stated, the suffix ‘-iatry’ means medical treatment and ‘logy’ means science or theory. Therefore, psychiatry studies the mind using medicine, and psychology addresses purely the study of the mind.
Let’s examine some of these differences: Psychologists and psychiatrists receive different educations. The psychologist receives a doctorate in psychology PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) in clinical or counseling psychology, and after receiving state licensure, can practice in the field. Doctoral programs usually take from five to seven years to complete and before being granted licensure, some states require a one- to two-year internship or supervised practice. Once the residency requirement is fulfilled, the individual can then be licensed to practice psychiatry. Individuals who prefer the research aspects of the profession, typically pursue the Ph.D., and people who prefer to treat patient pursue the PsyD.
In contrast, psychiatrists are specifically trained to assess, treat, and diagnose mental illness. The psychiatrist is more of a “medical doctor” than the psychologist. After attending medical school and receiving a M.D., psychiatrists must complete a four-year residency in mental health. Most psychiatrists choose to specialize in a certain area of mental illness, such as working with children or the elderly.
Another big difference between psychologists and psychiatrists is the ability to prescribe medicine. Most states only allow a psychiatrist to prescribe medicine, however two states, New Mexico and Louisiana, are less stringent and allow psychologists with post-doctoral master’s degrees or the equivalent in clinical psychopharmacology to prescribe medicine as well.
This is not to say that one career is more important than another. The career decision is up to you regarding which path to choose. If you are interested in administering tests, conducting research, working with patients, and providing psychotherapy, then a career as a psychologist is for you. Psychologists use a variety of tools to examine a person’s personality and brain function. They conduct neuropsychological tests to assess the extent of damage from an injury or illness or administer tests, such as the Rorschach which consists of a variety of inkblots that reveal how a person sees himself and his behavior.
If you are interested in administering medicine and working with more complex mental health situations, the career of a psychiatrist is probably the better option. A psychiatrist is also able to perform medical procedures, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a method to treat people who suffer from severe or delusional depression, acute mania, or schizophrenic episodes. This procedure is administered over a series of weeks, and the patient receives brief electrical pulses to the scalp. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a new form of therapy used in people who suffer from depression. During treatments, magnetic fields are used to stimulate nerve cells that are involved in mood control.
Another difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that some students decide to pursue psychiatric nursing. These students hold a master’s degree or higher and are able to provide psychotherapy and prescribe medicine.
Many people tend to think that psychiatrists only treat people with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Although this tends to be the case, many psychiatrists practice psychotherapy as well. Many health insurance plans do not compensate the psychiatrists for psychotherapy sessions, therefore, therapy is provided in their private practice or by referrals from a psychologist who does not have ability to prescribe medicine. Market data shows that, on average, a psychologist charges $65 – $114 for a 45 – 50 minute therapy session, as opposed to a psychiatrist who typically charges $107 – $155 per session.