Psychologist or psychiatrist, what are the differences and similarities?


In this article, you will discover the differences and similarities between a psychiatrist and a psychologist and who to choose if you have a mental illness.

Table of contents

If you are wondering what the difference is between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, it is probably because you yourself are considering consulting a professional about a mental health problem. If the help isn't for you, it might be for a friend or family member.

Perhaps you are not looking for help and are just curious to know what the difference is between these two mental health professionals.

In this article I'm going to explain:

  1. Differences between a psychiatrist and a psychologist .
  2. Similarities Between Psychiatrists and Psychologists .
  3. Who to go to: psychiatrist or psychologist?
Psychologist or psychiatrist
Psychologist or psychiatrist

What is a psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a person who, after graduating in Medicine, manages to specialize in the medical specialty of Psychiatry. This entire training period is achieved after a minimum of eleven years, of which six belong to the career, one to the preparation of the MIR and four to the specialty.

The four years of specialty are carried out in a public hospital where places are offered for that specialty. The training of medical specialists is regulated and follows a regulated training program.

The training of a psychiatrist takes a minimum of eleven years.

What does a psychiatrist do

The specialty of psychiatry deals with the study, prevention, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of mental health problems.

I am aware that this description can scare many people who do not want to feel sick and reject the idea of ​​seeing a psychiatrist.

But, tell me, where would you go if there is a food that has made you sick, you get a stain on your skin or you have some pain? Wouldn't you go to the doctor? It may not be anything important, but if it is a treatable problem, it is better to do it as soon as possible.

So why not also go to the doctor if you find yourself nervous, extremely worried, sad or obsessed? The benefit of going and the risk of not going are the same.

The benefit of going and the risk of not going is the same for the psychiatrist as for any other doctor.

How does a psychiatrist work?

A psychiatrist has very rudimentary tools: the main one is the word, just like the psychologist.

The psychiatrist will talk to you, as a psychologist does, to understand what is happening to you and how to help you. Generally, between one and two hours of interview are necessary to establish a diagnosis and agree on a treatment plan with you.

The treatment plan does not necessarily have to include a medication, as most people believe. What is certain is that the psychiatrist, as a doctor, can prescribe medication to people who can benefit from it. Later, we will see how the prescription process is carried out.

Finally, the psychiatrist, being a doctor, can suspect physical illnesses that manifest with mental symptoms. Therefore, recommend a referral to another specialist, such as neurologists or endocrinologists, or may prescribe medical tests. The medical tests that psychiatrists usually prescribe are blood or urine tests, imaging tests (such as a brain scan or MRI), electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, or sleep studies.

What does a psychiatrist do if he does not prescribe medication?

Psychiatrists are not alone in prescribing medication. A psychiatrist can make recommendations for mental health promotion, psychopathological evaluations, suspect physical illnesses and request complementary tests, rule out mental illness and perform psychotherapy.

Psychiatrists also do psychotherapy.

Although prescribing medication can be considered one of the main differences between psychiatrists and psychologists, this does not mean that the psychiatrist treats with medication and the psychologist without medication.

How to know if a psychiatrist is good

Previously we have talked about the itinerary that a psychiatrist has to follow to achieve his degree. As a minimum, we have said, that they are eleven years of demanding training. If we add the vocational nature of the profession with the complicated and extensive training of professionals, we find excellent professionals, experienced and willing to help anyone who needs it.

If we want to look at specific details to choose a good psychiatrist , I suggest you look at which university he studied at, at which hospital he did his residency to obtain the specialty, what postgraduate studies he has done and where he has previously worked. In some cases, it may be interesting to see if the professional has a specific subspecialty.

It is very important to find the right professional.

In my opinion, subspecialties have more value after the patient has been evaluated. Otherwise, there is a risk that the patient self-diagnoses, goes to a highly specialized professional in a specific area and other problems that are just as important or more important can be ignored.

In general, the advantage of going to a psychiatrist is that her long training allows her to have a very broad vision of mental health and it is more difficult for her to make the mistake of focusing too much on a problem. In contrast, psychologists who do not have a clinical psychology specialty may not have sufficient clinical experience and may misclassify patients.

What is a psychologist

A psychologist is a person who has a degree in psychology. Psychologists can work in many fields: education, psychosocial, human resources, forensic, sports, research, teaching or clinical. Therefore, it is a career with different itineraries, whose graduates can carry out very diverse jobs and positions.

Having a degree in Psychology is not enough to be able to care for patients.

In general, a psychologist - simply because he or she has a degree or license in psychology - cannot care for patients in a clinical setting or work in a health center.

In order for a psychologist to work with patients or in a health center, he or she must have obtained a master's degree in general health psychology or have specialized in clinical psychology.

Difference between health psychologist and clinical psychologist

It is very important here to understand the difference between a clinical psychologist and a general health psychologist .

The general health psychologist has to complete a two-year master's degree, in which he does an internship as an observer.

On the contrary, the clinical psychologist does a four-year postgraduate training in the teaching unit of a public hospital through a regulated training program and supervised care work.

In other words, they are working directly with the patient and their relatives under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. In order to access training in clinical psychology, it is necessary to have obtained a place in the annual national call for an examination-opposition to which all graduates/graduates in psychology can opt.

The number of places offered is very limited and considerably lower than the number of opponents.

A clinical psychologist has training comparable to that of a medical specialist.

Therefore, the psychologist specializing in clinical psychology has a much more demanding training than that of the general health psychologist and, therefore, starts from greater experience and qualification.

What does a Clinical Psychologist do?

A clinical psychologist typically provides psychotherapy to patients who have been previously assessed or referred by other professionals (family physicians, psychiatrists or university tutors).

Clinical psychologists, in addition to individual psychotherapy, may provide couple or family therapy. Some clinical psychologists have subspecialized and are clinical neuropsychologists who conduct neuropsychological assessments.

Only psychologists who specialize in clinical psychology are those who can practice in the centers, institutions and services of the National Health System. Therefore, psychologists who do not have this specialty and who are health psychologists cannot work in public health in general.

How does a Clinical Psychologist work?

Like the psychiatrist, the clinical psychologist will use the spoken word to carry out his or her work. Diagnostic assessments will be done basically through a clinical interview (a conversation with the patient).

The therapeutic intervention will also have the word as a pillar, which can be complemented by some exercises. These exercises can be meditation or relaxation, therapeutic writing, journaling or recording, or guided imagery, among others.

With children, the work of a child clinical psychologist is usually different. Because they have less ability to communicate verbally, other means such as drawing or games are used. The child psychologist will also take into account anything the parents or primary caregivers may have to say about the child.

Similarities between a psychologist and a psychiatrist

A clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist have very similar training pathways.

Both must complete a university degree or bachelor's degree and then pass a national challenge examination to enter specialist training.

Both specialist training in psychiatry or clinical psychology takes four years. In many cases, the teaching units are the same and share many experiences in the training process.

In contrast, the training of a health psychologist, not a specialist in clinical psychology, follows a very different route and they do not have these four years of extensive training.

The academic itinerary of a clinical psychologist is similar to that of a psychiatrist.

Apart from the similarities in the training itinerary, another fundamental issue is that a psychologist and a psychiatrist are Mental Health professionals.

Both are health professionals whose objective is to prevent, evaluate, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate mental disorders, as well as promote mental health. Therefore, much of the work they do is superimposable. The word becomes the main tool for diagnosis and, in many cases, also for treatment.

Both a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist can carry out psychopathological evaluations that allow us to understand the situation and the problems that a person is going through.

Both psychiatrist and psychologist can carry out psychotherapeutic treatments.

Regarding the therapeutic approach, both a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist can offer psychotherapeutic approaches. It is very common for both professionals to share a classroom in the postgraduate training courses of the different currents of psychotherapy that exist.

Differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist

The main difference between psychologists and psychiatrists, and the one that carries the most weight, is that the psychiatrist is a doctor and the psychologist is a psychologist.

Therefore, as a doctor, the psychiatrist can prescribe medication and can request different diagnostic tests. The type of diagnostic tests that a psychiatrist may request are: blood tests, urinalysis, imaging tests (X-rays, scanner, MRI), ECG, EEG, sleep studies or consultations with other medical specialties.

These tests are not ordered to confirm the diagnosis of a mental disorder, but are used to:

  • rule out certain medical illnesses that present with symptoms similar to mental disorders, for example, rule out hyperthyroidism when there is anxiety and insomnia.
  • know the patient's health status, for example, whether they have diabetes or hypertension. This information can be decisive when choosing one medication or another.
  • find out if the prescribed medication or lifestyle has interfered in any way with your physical health, for example, by monitoring your weight and cholesterol levels.

Although many of these tests are not decisive and will not rule out a possible psychiatric diagnosis, it is true that they can provide very useful information to improve the overall health of the patient. For this reason, it is common for a psychologist to consider that a patient he is treating is also evaluated by a psychiatrist, who, ultimately, is a doctor.

Who can medicate: the psychiatrist or the psychologist?

This is another issue: people who confuse a psychiatrist with a psychologist and call a psychologist a professional who has prescribed medication. In general, psychologists cannot prescribe medication of any kind, while psychiatrists can prescribe any medication because before being psychiatrists, they are doctors.

Psychologists cannot prescribe medication, while psychiatrists can prescribe any medication.

Medication prescription is a key form of treatment for many mental disorders. In the last 30 years there have been very important advances and current treatments are very safe, quite effective and very well tolerated by patients.

It is true that the most severe cases are the ones that benefit the most from pharmacological treatment. But, in many mild cases, medication can also make a very important difference and greatly help the person being treated.

Clinical psychologists, who work closely with psychiatrists, know when to refer their patient to a psychiatrist so that he or she can offer pharmacological treatment.

Psychiatrist or psychologist, who should I make an appointment with?

When to make an appointment with a psychiatrist

In general, I recommend making an appointment with a psychiatrist in the following cases:

  1. if you have a definite symptom (such as insomnia, panic attacks, frequent crying, or trouble concentrating) that causes significant discomfort.
  2. if you think you may need medication or if you are already taking medication.
  3. if a psychologist has recommended that you see a psychiatrist or you have been undergoing therapy for some time without having obtained improvement.
  4. if you have an addiction.
  5. if you have had any recent behavioral changes or thought about harming yourself in any way.

When to make an appointment with a psychologist

It would be advisable to make an appointment with a psychologist in the first instance in the following cases:

  1. faced with a problem of life dissatisfaction.
  2. before a conflict of couple, family or work.
  3. when there are mild and not very persistent symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  4. when a psychiatrist has recommended psychotherapy treatment.

Can I treat myself with a psychiatrist and a psychologist at the same time?

Of course you can have a combined treatment with a psychiatrist and a psychologist . In fact, it is a very common practice and highly recommended in many cases.

The vision of two professionals of the same problem can be very enriching and help the patient more. This is possible when the two professionals work as a team, coordinate, know each other and understand each other well. Of course, it is easier if you already know each other and work in the same center.

It is also possible that the psychiatrist acts as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist and is the one who bears the burden of both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatment.

It has the advantage that there is a single professional who cares for the patient, optimizing the patient's time and centralizing all the information about the person treated in the same professional. There may be patients who prefer this approach and it may be more indicated than the approach performed by two different professionals.

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative, I have no authority to make a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I invite you to visit a psychologist to treat your particular case.