Psychologists and Psychiatrists: How Do They Differ?

The figures on mental health problems in the world are alarming. How can psychologists and psychiatrists help in the face of this reality?
Psychologists and Psychiatrists: How Do They Differ?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 10 April, 2023

More than once we hear that people who are going through a situation of suffering refuse to seek help from a mental health professional: psychologists and psychiatrists. However, these same people wouldn’t hesitate to call a doctor if they detected any discomfort in their bodies.

The WHO records that 1 in 8 people in the world has some mental health disorder.

Despite these data, there’s some reluctance to seek help. What are the causes? Are there myths about what it means to go to therapy? Why is there so much ignorance about how these experts work?

Not addressing the problem won’t make it go away, quite the opposite.

To overcome these resistances and improve our quality of life, knowing what psychologists and psychiatrists do can help us feel better when thinking about getting an appointment. Let’s see what it’s all about.

What is a psychologist?

A psychologist is a health expert, and, more specifically, a mental health professional, with a degree in psychology.

Being interested in people’s health, psychologists work on different topics to understand human behavior. They, therefore, deal with patients’ behavior, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. They’re also able to understand basic psychological processes, such as memory, language and attention, among others.

However, the goal is always the person’s well-being, through the achievement of more functional and adaptive behaviors. A psychologist is also prepared to apply tests or any other tool that allows them to guide their diagnoses or interventions.

In relation to initiating psychotherapy, there’s a false belief that, in order to consult a psychologist, one must have a problem. This isn’t necessarily so, as it’s possible to go for a greater self-knowledge, and to acquire emotional and social skills. In other words, their interventions are aimed at empowering the person, their development, and quality of life.

This shows that the psychologist’s work is linked to promotion and prevention, as well as to treatment and rehabilitation once an illness or problem has manifested itself.

It’s important to mention that a degree in psychology enables not only the practice of clinical psychology, but also opens up a range of options in other areas

  • Organizational
  • Community
  • Educational
  • Legal
  • Labor

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is also a mental health professional, and their studies focus on the field of medicine.

According to Vallejo Ruiloba and Leal Cercós (2005), psychiatry deals with the study, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of mental disorders. These include both psychiatric illnesses and other psychic pathologies.

Although they may acquire additional training and incorporate different tools, psychiatrists tend to work from an approach more closely linked to the biomedical and organic. This doesn’t imply that they ignore the social area as a factor in these problems. Even within psychiatry, there are different approaches, such as social and community psychiatry.

3 fundamental differences between psychologists and psychiatrists

Although both professions are linked to mental health, they have differences in terms of their competencies and areas of work. Their work, for comprehensive care, is complementary.

1. Training and studies

Psychologists and psychiatrists.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have different degrees and postgraduate studies.
The two professions differ in their studies.

While a psychologist takes a degree in psychology, a psychiatrist takes a medical degree and then specializes in psychiatry.

If we take the European country of Spain as an example to guide us, a psychologist would need to specialize. This could be a Master’s degree in Health Psychology (2 years) or the PIR (psychologist internal resident), which is a 4-year residency program for psychologists, accessed through a competitive examination. The PIR is carried out in hospital units and specializes in mental illness. It should be noted that those who don’t wish to work in the clinical setting don’t need these specialties.

2. Focus of their work

Although it depends on the approach used, in general, psychologists work with patients taking into account data from the social context, personal and family relationships, beliefs, and thoughts, as well as emotions. The issues they address belong to a broader field and they use a variety of techniques, such as relaxation, role play, and cognitive techniques, among others.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, focus their attention on the physiological and chemical aspects of the human body. More specifically, of the brain. To do so, they can make use of medication.

Certain topics can be addressed from both disciplines.

However, there are specific topics that will be addressed from a psychological perspective, and that, in general, will respond to more everyday areas: vocational orientation, self-esteem, conflicts in interpersonal relationships etc.

3. Prescription of psychotropic drugs

Taking a tablet.
While psychiatrists are authorized to prescribe drugs, psychologists use other therapeutic tools.
The prescription of active ingredients is limited to psychiatry.

Although both psychologists and psychiatrists can make diagnoses, in the event of observing that it’s necessary to start treatment with drugs, a psychologist would request that the patient visit the psychiatrist. They’re the ones who are authorized in the professional practice to prescribe psychotropic drugs (neuroleptics, anxiolytics, antidepressants, etc.).

Despite some differences, both professions can work complementarily in the search for the patient’s improvement. Certain disorders show more effective progress when they’re addressed in an interdisciplinary manner.

When should I see a psychologist?

Starting psychotherapy is a very personal decision, which is often accompanied by fears, prejudices, and embarrassment, as well as myths about what it means to go to a psychologist. However, it’s important to be encouraged to overcome one’s own barriers and take a positive step toward change.

Some situations that may motivate a psychological consultation could be the following:

  • When the person feels that they can no longer cope with certain problems, and that they have run out of resources to move forward.
  • If our moods begin to affect our daily life, hindering our work performance, family life, or our relationship with our partner.
  • In the face of certain life cycle crises or other significant events, such as a bereavement, a move, or a divorce. Also in the face of developmental problems or difficulties.
  • To acquire certain skills or improve aspects of our personality, character, or behavior.
  • If another health professional recommends accompanying certain treatments with psychotherapy. At present, it’s a practice incorporated in oncology, as stated in an article in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.

When should I see a psychiatrist?

Some of the situations that may motivate a visit to a psychiatrist are the following:

  • In the presence of any mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Likewise, the treatment can also be complemented with psychotherapy.
  • When the presence of delusions or hallucinations is detected.
  • If another healthcare professional recommends it as part of treatment.

Do not give up on mental healthcare

Psychology and psychiatry are different scientific disciplines, but are able to work together if the case requires it. Professionals should try to provide information to patients about the scope of their profession, as this is a basic right.

Furthermore, fluid communication should be maintained for mutual understanding, so as not to mislead with contradictory indications and in order to make the patient feel safe.

Finally, it’s fine to keep looking for an expert in these fields to find the right one for us. We won’t always feel at ease with the first psychologist or psychiatrist we visit. The therapeutic bond is something that takes time in knowledge and trust, so it’s important that, if we aren’t comfortable, we don’t rule out the possibility of being helped.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.