I’m pretty open about my mental health struggles with anorexia and bipolar disorder, and I love that openness. I love being honest about how I feel and what I go through, and I love that I’m in a place where I have no shame and no concerns about what others may think about it. Not to mention it’s important to discuss mental health to break the stigma that leads to so much negativity.
As you can imagine, my candidness and honesty invite a great deal of misunderstanding into my life. People are often ignorant, and some are downright cruel; they just don’t understand the ins and outs of mental illness. And while it isn’t an obligation for others to relate and sympathize with my struggles, I feel it’s my duty to educate people anyway.
One of the less insulting areas of confusion for people is the difference between psychology and psychiatry. It’s common for me to be talking about how I have to get my meds adjusted and for the friends I’m talking with to ask when I next see my psychologist. Or the reverse, when I’m talking about what breakthroughs I’m making with my psychologist and the person I’m talking to refers to her as my psychiatrist.
Although such misunderstandings aren’t the end of the world, there are many aspects of the two types of professional help they give that people, especially those in need of professional care, should be aware of.
1. Same team, different positions
Psychologists and psychiatrists do work in the same general area. Both focus on the mind, the way it works, how it affects what we do, and its impact on overall wellness. They both try to help the people that see them overcome mental health issues. In this way, we can imagine that psychologists and psychiatrists are on the same “team.” A big chunk of their jobs overlap since they both have the same areas of expertise and the same goals in mind. But the way they are able to go about helping their patients/clients differ, so in this analogy, they play different positions.
2. Psychiatrists prescribe medications
The biggest difference between these “players” is that psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications. Psychiatrists are considered medical professionals since they go to medical school and are trained as medical doctors. They then specialize in the specific field by continuing on to be residents in psychiatry. That extensive training is why they can prescribe the medications that, with most mental illnesses, are a vital part of treatment. Overall, psychiatrists try to figure out what could be going on in a person’s brain based on what his or her symptoms are. A psychiatrist tends to be more concerned with brain circuits, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain), and structural abnormalities than a psychologist. Psychiatrists also diagnose mental health disorders using the DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual).
3. Psychologists are a key part of treatment in a different way
Psychologists are still considered to be healthcare professionals, and despite not being able to prescribe meds, they work to achieve mental health goals by getting to the root of mental and emotional suffering. Psychologists help people deal with hardships, usually by talking through them and guiding the person to come to terms with or accept what has happened. They help their clients adjust harmful or maladaptive ways of coping using behavioral interventions. In addition to talking, this may involve worksheets, role-playing, or even mindfulness exercises. They may use psychological testing and evaluation. They also rely heavily on analysis, interpretation, observation, and collecting information in order to determine what could be causing issues in a client’s life. They can also use the DSM, but again, they cannot prescribe medications.
4. Giving psychotherapy
“Therapist” is an overarching term used to describe the people who treat clients suffering from mental health issues and who help facilitate recovery. Psychologists often focus the support they provide around psychotherapy and thus a psychologist is commonly referred to as a person’s therapist. While psychiatrists are also able to provide psychotherapy, as it is part of their med school curriculum, most do not use it as part of their regular practice.
5. Different schooling
As we’ve already said, psychiatrists go to medical school and then go on to study the more specific track of psychiatry. Psychologists, on the other hand, receive advanced degrees in Psychology, going to school to learn about personality development, the history of psychological problems, and the science of research methods.
6. Asking different questions for different purposes
Psychiatrists manage medications by asking questions that help him or her determine what’s happening in your brain. The goal is to find out information about your behavior, mood, emotions, thoughts, etc that your psychiatrist will then use to decide which, if any, medications can remedy the problem or alleviate the symptoms and distress. The meds a psychiatrist prescribes have an effect on the chemicals in the brain and on the nervous system and determining the specific problem is imperative in order to fix it. The questions asked by a psychiatrist are not necessarily the same questions asked by a psychologist. There is definitely some overlap, but a psychologist tends to have an increased interest in the reasons behind behavior, mood, and thoughts. My psychiatrist might not know the in-depth details of why I do what I do as well as my psychologist does, which is probably because I see my psychologist more often (weekly as opposed to monthly). But it’s fine because she knows what she needs to know in order to manage my medications appropriately.
7. One can suggest the other as a part of treatment
It is common for a psychologist to refer a client to a psychiatrist and for the opposite to happen as well. Different approaches are sometimes needed to treat a person’s mental illness, and professionals are well-equipped to realize what types of care will be best helpful. Again, the two often work together as a team to help a person in need, and each is important in their own way. There are a variety of ways to address problems or symptoms, and when you have a team working with you, you’re getting more of what you need to be the best, healthiest version of yourself.
8. Similarities are also significant
The main qualities psychiatrists and psychologists need to have are virtually the same. Both must be good listeners, good communicators, and have good people skills, the obvious reason being that their jobs require listening, communicating, and being personable. Success in their jobs relies heavily on understanding another person and building a trusting rapport. Their goals are also the same. They both seek to improve mental and emotional health through the work that they do, using the training they received.
As someone who struggled with anorexia and who continues to live with bipolar disorder, my treatment and mood management requires that I see both a psychologist and psychiatrist. They are each valuable to me in different ways, but I need each one’s perspectives and skills. My psychologist is always reminding me to be honest with my psychiatrist and even suggesting (sometimes strongly) that I call her when I’m starting to feel mentally unhealthy. And my psychiatrist often takes something I say and suggests I talk about it with my psychologist. This is a great example of how the two professionals can work in tandem to bring about positive changes in the lives of those struggling.
Psychiatrists and psychologists both bring unique treatment to the table. If you think you should be in the care of mental health professionals, it is important to do the research and understand the differences listed above. Being educated on your potential options is always a crucial part of overcoming or dealing with mental illness.
If you think you should see a psychologist, your regular doctor might be able to help. Furthermore, you might find this article interesting. Your regular doctor, or the psychologist, may or may not feel psychiatric intervention is necessary. To be prepared for that possibility, you might want to visit the American Psychiatric Association’s website.
“Psychiatrists and Psychologists: What’s the Difference?” RANZCP, https://www.yourhealthinmind.org/psychiatry-explained/psychiatrists-and-psychologists.
“Psychiatry, Psychology, Counseling, and Therapy: What to Expect.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/guide-to-psychiatry-and-counseling#1.
“Therapist vs. Psychologist: How Do The Careers Differ?” AllPsychologySchools.com, https://www.allpsychologyschools.com/psychology/differences-therapist-psychologist/.
What Is Psychiatry?, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry.