What is the Difference Between Psychologist and Psychiatrist?

Jun 24, 20245 min
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Mave
Clinical Psychologist
What is the Difference Between Psychologist and Psychiatrist

Mental Health: Psychiatrists vs. Psychologists

Mental health has been a matter of concern for professionals across various fields including philosophers, nutritionists, yogis, ayurveda, spiritual practitioners and healers, doctors, and psychologists.

But, not every professional is trained to work with mental health issues. Mental health concerns fall under the purview of psychiatrists and psychologists. While both professionals study the workings of the mind, and its connection with various things such as the body, society and culture, gender, work and nutrition, the fields have some crucial differences. 

Psychiatrists are medical doctors with a specialization in psychiatry - the study of mental health illnesses. Psychologists, on the other hand, pursue bachelor's, master's, and in some cases, a doctorate. While psychiatry is considered to be a science since it has its roots in biology, psychology is considered to be on the cusp of science and humanities since it tries to understand the intersection between the mind, body, society, and culture.

Understanding the Educational Background

A psychiatrist pursues an MBBS, which offers them undergraduate, unspecialized training in medical sciences. An MBBS degree is the qualifying degree for a doctor. After the completion of MBBS, a doctor chooses their specialization and does a residency in the same, which earns them an MD. A psychiatrist, after completing MBBS, does a residency in psychiatry. They may opt for further training in order to gain specialization in niche areas, but this is not necessary. 

A psychologist has a bachelor's in psychology. This may be a BA or BSc. After this, they must do a Masters in Psychology. In India, a Master in Psychology (MA or MSc) qualifies an individual to work as a Counseling Psychologist. A Clinical Psychologist must train further, and obtain a PsyD. Some psychologists also opt to pursue PhD after Masters, especially if they have an interest in research or academics. 

Key Differences in Licensure

A psychiatrist is licensed for practice by the medical board. In India, only clinical psychologists can obtain a license under the RCI or the Rehabilitation Council of India. This is because the field of psychology is still largely unregulated in India, with only one specialization eligible for licensure. 

Having said that, other specializations such as counselling psychology or family therapy are just as useful. If you’re looking for a psychologist in India, it’s better to ask them for their qualifications and experience rather than licensure as the latter is still under development here. 

Psychiatrists vs. Psychologists: Diagnosis Differences and Conditions Treated

It’s not just the educational background of psychiatrists and psychologists that’s different. Their areas of focus and specialisation, the conditions they treat and the types of treatments they offer also vary considerably. The table below highlights some key differences between psychologists and psychiatrists. 


Psychiatrist

Psychologists

Diagnosis

Psychiatrists are trained to diagnose mental health conditions, and patients or clients are often referred to psychiatrists solely for diagnosis while treatment goes on with a psychologist. 

Clinical psychologists can diagnose mental health illnesses. However, most psychologists are trained to diagnose. Counseling psychologists, couples and family therapists, school counselors etc can not diagnose and may need to refer to either a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist for diagnosis.

Treatment / Management 

The primary mode of treatment a psychiatrist can offer is medication. In some cases, a psychiatrist may use procedures such as neurostimulation. In some cases, a psychiatrist may gain training in different types of psychotherapy, like CBT. However, their primary training is in the prescription and management of medication. 

A psychologist is trained in one or several “talk therapies”. There are various specializations and treatment modalities that psychologists can train in. Psychodynamic psychotherapy, CBT, and humanistic or person-centered therapy are the three main approaches in psychology. All psychotherapies, however, focus on emotional and behavioural management primarily through talking.  

Conditions

Psychiatrists tend to work with severe pathologies such as psychosis, severe mood disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders. Medication may be needed for “milder” pathologies when symptoms make it difficult to engage with psychotherapy. 

Psychologists can work with a wide range of mental health issues, and many have a non-diagnostic approach as well, making room for emotional distress that may have nothing to do with an “illness”. 

We've covered Types of Psychologist and How can psychologist help with mental health?

When Medication Might Be Necessary

Many mental health concerns can be managed without medication. This is especially true for conditions where psychosocial factors contribute to their development and maintenance. However, in some cases, medication becomes necessary. 

Psychoses such as schizophrenia can benefit from anti-psychotic medications. Mood disorders such as bipolar can benefit from mood stabilizers. Even in some cases of anxiety and depression, medication can help lift the fog that is created, so that the patient/ client can engage with psychotherapy more effectively. 

This is because sometimes the symptoms of anxiety or depression may be so severe that the individual is unable to engage in the process of therapy. While medication alone can’t cure these conditions, they can facilitate the process of therapy by reducing the symptoms. 

The Power of Psychotherapy

While psychiatric medications are important for symptom management, sustainable change often comes from psychotherapy. This is because our mental health is impacted not just by our biology, but also by our psychological traits and makeup, and the social and cultural forces we find ourselves navigating.

Consider the example of an Indian woman in her late 20s or early 30s who has just gotten married. As a woman adjusts to new roles and responsibilities, often under the watchful eyes of family members, the risk of anxiety and depression increases. For a woman, this is a psychosocial transition that may lead to some mental health concerns. 

In cases where symptoms of anxiety or depression are severe, medication may help alleviate some of the discomfort. But, it is in psychotherapy that the woman will discover her coping mechanisms, strengths and resiliency, and learn to maintain her identity and sense of self through this transition. 

Such is the power of psychotherapy - it delves into the individuality of the patient/client, teasing out their unique strengths and resources, honouring their limitations, unlearning unhelpful patterns of relating and being, and learning new, helpful ones. 

Working Together for Optimal Care

Despite the vast differences in the education and scope of work of psychiatrists and psychologists, they work well in tandem. First of all, it is important to nurture an attitude of referral between the two fields. 

Clients don’t know whom to go for treatment. It is common for someone with anxiety to first go to a psychiatrist, or, on the other hand, for someone who is struggling with a more severe mood-related disorder, to first seek the support of a psychologist. It’s important that both sets of professionals remain open to referring out when they come across a client or patient who can benefit more from seeing the other professional. 

As it has been discussed above, in many cases, both medication and psychotherapy are helpful. Medication can facilitate the curative process of therapy, and therapy, on the other hand, can empower a client to create lasting change. 

Conclusion: Prioritizing Mental Wellness

While a psychiatrist is a medical professional trained to treat mental health conditions with medication, a psychologist is trained in the psychosocial aspects that contribute to mental health issues.

Together, the two professions can cater to the three factors that shape our mental well-being, offering a holistic biopsychosocial support system. When seeking help for mental health, it’s important that we work with the right professional who can cater to our unique needs.

Not everyone needs a psychiatrist. And not everyone can be helped by a psychologist. But everyone can find some relief by working with either one or both of these professionals. 

References/citation

REHABILITATION COUNCIL OF INDIA. (n.d.). Rehabcouncil.nic.in. 

Hussain, M. (2022, August 12). Psychologist and Psychiatrist: What’s the difference? Telegraph India. 

Mayo Clinic. (2019, June 8). Mental illness - diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic. 

‌M.K, R., & Kaur, P. (2020). Depression, Anxiety, Stress and Marital Adjustment among Women. Virtual Commons - Bridgewater State University. 

Neurostimulation [2024]: Types, Benefits, Safety, and Effectiveness. (n.d.). Www.mavehealth.com. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from 

Author's Profile picture
Mave
Clinical Psychologist
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