Understanding the Relationship Between Psychiatrists and Psychologists

Psychiatrists and Psychologists share a lot of similarities —and more than a few differences. While some people consider them interchangeable, they are not. However, the two study complementary sciences and in many surprising ways relate to one another to help patients achieve their best possible mental wellness.

Both psychiatrists and psychologists study the mind and how it affects a patient’s overall wellness. It is not uncommon for them to work together to diagnose mental illness or to work together to treat or prevent it. They share a commitment to treating patient’s mental health problems, talking patients through their problems, and helping them manage the issues they encounter in their lives.

However, Psychiatry and Psychology are different sciences. While they both identify and treat mental health problems, differences exist in what they study and how they provide treatment.

Psychiatrists attend medical school, earn their M.D., and specialize in the physical brain and its interaction with behavior to create the patient’s personality. In addition, a Psychiatrist will also complete a residency at a clinic or hospital, training in a multitude of disciplines, which usually include neurology, forensic psychology, and chemical dependency. Most psychiatric residency programs are four years, with the final year focused on the resident’s elected speciality. After residency, they take the state medical board for their license to practice. Many psychiatrists will also go on to  become board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

Psychologists attend a graduate school program, earn their Ph.D., PsyD or EdD, and specialize in the connections between the brain and behavior, as well as ways to research these relationships and treat the behavioral problems that can exist as a result of the interaction.

Differences also exist in how they approach treatment:

Psychiatrists will determine whether the illness is caused by mental health or another physical condition, often looking to rule out another medical cause of the symptoms before a diagnosis. For example, a Psychiatrist might examine through medical testing whether the patient’s negative feelings are because of a thyroid problem rather than clinical depression. They also consider whether a chemical imbalance is causing the problem, as well as observe the physical reaction (e.g., blood pressure or heart rate) of the body to the symptoms. Psychiatrists also study the effects of medication on the body (e.g. blood pressure or liver function). After diagnosis, they might prescribe medication to manage the condition. Depression and anxiety are two examples of mental health conditions whose symptoms are controlled well by medication. However, sometimes medication isn’t enough to manage a mental health condition, necessitating psychotherapy or counseling. The Psychiatrist might handle this part of the treatment or refer their patient to another mental health professional, including a Psychologist.


Psychologists study the mind and the behavior, evaluating the patient for emotional or mental disorders. While their study is in psychology, not medicine, they also can identify mental health conditions. However, most psychologists are not primarily looking at chemical imbalances, but instead are focusing on the patient’s thoughts and emotional state. They also assess the patient’s mental health overall. They can test patients and provide treatment for mental disorders. They can also provide counseling or psychotherapy, which might or might not include psychological theory or behavioral therapy. They cannot, however, prescribe medications (in most states), nor can they perform medical procedures. Many times, psychologists work closely with a psychiatrist or even a general medical practitioner. The medical doctor handles the medical treatment of a patient’s mental illness, while the psychologist handles the psychotherapy.

To read more about the similarities and differences between a Psychologist vs. a Psychiatrist, please click here.

The Difference Between Counseling and Psychotherapy

There is a difference between counseling and psychotherapy, despite the fact that you probably have heard them used interchangeably.

Counseling is a treatment focused on a particular problem. An example of this type of problem might be anger management or substance abuse. Counseling is designed to provide coping skills or trigger awareness to facilitate substance avoidance. It typically is a short-term treatment.

Psychotherapy takes on a wider range of problems including mental health problems. An example of a condition suited to psychotherapy might be Schizophrenia or Manic Depressive Disorder. Psychotherapy helps patients understand the effects of their behavior on others, and provides better tools for managing day-to-day situations in the patient’s life. Designed to facilitate better interpersonal relationships, it addresses management of symptoms as well as medical protocols. It is often a longer-term treatment.

To read more about the differences between the therapies and what the American Psychological Association deems the five approaches of Psychotherapy, please click here.

If you are uncertain which kind of doctor to seek, it’s a good idea to talk to your regular doctor about what you have been feeling, for how long, and other information he or she might ask you. Your doctor will likely have a better idea of whom you need to see for a diagnosis, if anyone. The key here is to be honest with your doctor so they can refer you to an appropriate specialist to help you achieve your best mental health. Most experts agree that the only wrong move when you feel like something is off in your mental health is to make no move at all.

To learn more about how Achieve Wellness Group might help you or someone you love, please click here.

Posted in: