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Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist - When searching for therapy or treatment for behavior disorders should you choose a psychologist or psychiatrist? This article defines psychologists and psychiatrists, and compares the differences and similarities in both of these psych fields.

Causes of Confusion with Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

Psychologists and psychiatrists are both mental health professionals, having advanced degrees and having job titles that begin with P-S-Y-C-H. There is enough similarity here that confusion is not surprising. In fact, let's start with the job titles as we sort out the differences.

Psychologist is a form of the word psychology, from the root psych- (meaning "mind") and the suffix -logy (meaning "the science of"). It was first known to be used in 1653. Psychology is the science of mind and human behavior, and a psychologist is someone who has a degree in that area.

Psychiatrist is form of the word psychiatry, from the root psych- (meaning "mind") and the suffix -iatry (meaning "medical treatment"). It was first known to be used in 1828. Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that focuses on disorders that are mental, emotional, or behavioral.

So the crux of the difference is already apparent: a psychiatrist is a medical doctor; a psychologist is not.

Training and Licensing Differences for Psychologists vs Psychiatrists

In order to practice psychology, state licensure is required. Different states have differences in their requirements, but all of them require the psychology candidate to have been awarded a master's degree or doctorate from an accredited institution, to have a minimum of one year of fieldwork, and to pass a state certification examination. For those who wish to specialize in clinical, educational, or counseling psychology, a doctorate in psychology is required, as well as 1 to 2 years of clinical training and an additional 1 to 2 years of supervised work experience prior to licensure. Most school psychologists have a graduate degree as an Education Specialist in psychology. 

In order to practice psychiatry, the first thing needed is a medical degree—either an M.D. or a D.O.—from an accredited school (medical school in the first case, school of osteopathy in the second case). In addition, 4 years of accredited residency training at minimum, of which 3 years must have been in psychiatry are required. States have their own licensing requirements for doctors, but most states require board certification in the medical specialty. So, in addition to all licensure requirements that must be met for medical doctors, psychiatrists usually get certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), which includes a written and oral examination. Recertification is required after 10 years.

Treatment Differences for Psychologists vs Psychiatrists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics clarifies that psychologists are social scientists, while psychiatrists are a subset of physicians & surgeons. Clinical psychologists interview patients, provide diagnostic tests, and offer therapy, but they cannot prescribe medication to treat their patients—this can only be done by a medical doctor, such as a psychiatrist. This leads to psychologist and psychiatrists working in tandem in some cases in which patients receive therapy from a psychologist, but see a psychiatrist for the prescription of medications that might be indicated by their treatment (such as mood stabilizers, for example). There is an exception to this in Louisiana and New Mexico, where, in certain circumstances and with appropriate training, some clinical psychologists have been granted limited ability to prescribe medication.



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