Psychologist VS Psychiatrist: How to Choose Between Each Option

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Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, many of them begin to share their struggles or talk about the time they’ve been in therapy. Some even ask me for advice.

It’s like the phrase “I’m a psychologist” has the magical power to turn a casual conversation into an impromptu therapy session.  

One of the most frequent questions I get is “Should I see a psychologist or psychiatrist?

We know for a fact that there’s a growing demand for mental health services. That means people are beginning to pay more attention to their emotional wellbeing.

In fact, some even choose to take the big step and look for professional help.

For me, the “psychologist vs. psychiatrist” debate raises two questions – Do people know what kind of help they need? And if they don’t, what can we do to educate them?

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

Before you ask yourself “Should I see a psychologist or psychiatrist?”, let’s look at the similarities and differences.

In general, both professionals have the same goal, to provide treatment options for patients who are dealing with mental health issues. Furthermore, both psychologists and psychiatrists have an in-depth understanding of how the human mind works.

Since both professions have overlapping duties, people tend to use the words “psychiatrist” and “psychologist” interchangeably.

In fact, ask anyone about the difference between psychologists and psychiatrist and they will probably tell you that psychiatrists prescribe drugs whereas psychologists employ “talk” therapy.

But while the “drugs vs. no drugs” approach is indeed a significant difference between the two professionals, there are other factors to consider.

So, let’s take a closer look at what it means to be a psychologist vs. psychiatrist.

General Stats

First, let’s see what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us about these two professions.

While psychologists earn an average of $79K per year, psychiatrists – like physicians and surgeons – earn around $200k per year. That’s roughly three times more than what psychologists make.

However, the future looks brighter for psychologists with an expected 14% increase (much faster than average) in demand over the next 10 years. compared to the 7% increase for psychiatrists.

Education and Training

To become a psychiatrist, you must start by attending medical school and receiving your MD. After that comes a four-year residency program where you will learn everything you need to know about psychopathology and mental health.

During your residency training, you will have the opportunity to practice psychiatry in a hospital, under the supervision of seasoned professionals.

Lastly, being a psychiatrist also means having a good understanding of various psychotherapeutic approaches. Many choose cognitive-behavioral therapy because research suggests this therapeutic approach goes well with medication.

If you wish to further your area of interest, you can opt for different specializations such as neuropsychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and geriatric psychiatry.

As for becoming a psychologist, there are two academic titles you can pursue once you graduate in psychology. You can go for a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) or a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy).

During the 5-to-7 years of doctoral studies, you get to study psychological theories, developmental psychology, human personality, and other related fields.

In other words, psychologists have a deeper understanding of the human mind and behavior than psychiatrists.

Depending on the state in which you conduct your practice, you might have to complete one or two years of internship and supervised work after receiving your doctorate.

Evaluation and Treatment

When it comes to evaluation methods and treatment options, there’s lots of overlap between psychologists and psychiatrists.

Both are apt to use structured clinical interviews and psychological testing to gain a better understanding of their patients’ condition.

However, we could argue that while psychiatrists place more emphasis on the biological and neurological aspects of mental illness, psychologists focus on the emotional and behavioral side.

If you consult a psychiatrist, you will probably receive a prescription for medication. But that depends mostly on the severity of your condition; not everyone who visits the office of a psychiatrist leaves with a prescription.

Whether you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or any other mood disturbance, there’s a wide range of safe and effective pharmacological treatments.

Even though some patients don’t like the idea of being on meds, it’s important to remember that psychiatric medication is one of the most effective treatments for mood disorders.

As for psychotherapy, this process involves having a conversation with a licensed psychologist who possesses a profound understanding of the human mind and can help you overcome your emotional difficulties.

Unlike a random chat with a friend, “talk” therapy involves self-exploration, self-discovery, and self-improvement. From this perspective, your psychologist is a guide that keeps you on track and helps you achieve mental and emotional wellbeing.

Long story short, I believe it’s essential for you to remember that psychologists and psychiatrists are mental health professionals who can assist you in dealing with emotional problems.   

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Psychologists and psychiatrists are mental health professionals who can assist you in dealing with emotional problems.

Sometimes, You Have to See Both a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist (and That’s OK)

A couple of years ago, when I got my license to practice psychotherapy, I was just like many of my colleagues – a hopeless and naïve optimist who thought he could “cure” everyone.

In theory, “talk” therapy can be useful for anyone who’s dealing with mental or emotional problems. Even patients who are dealing with severe conditions like chronic depression, complex trauma, or schizophrenia can benefit from having someone who provides emotional support.

However, there are times when the patient’s condition is so severe that therapy alone doesn’t cut it. I’ve had clients who, despite our combined efforts, showed zero signs of improvement.

That’s when I realized that sometimes, psychology and psychiatry can complement each other nicely. Sometimes, psychiatric medication helps stabilize the patient’s mood, making him/her more responsive to psychotherapeutic interventions.

Perhaps it’s time to end the stigma associated with mental health and “being on meds”.

Why shouldn’t we look at psychiatric medication the same way we look at any other type of medication!?  

I strongly believe the future of mental health relies on holistic and integrative approaches. A system where counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers are all collaborating towards the same goal – a healthier and happier life for their patients.

When Should I Consult a Mental Health Professional?

When you’re dealing with emotional issues, accepting help is the first step towards recovery. And help can come from many directions.

Sometimes, pouring your heart out to a friend can be enough to overcome a “bad” mood. Or perhaps having a supportive family can help you deal with a tough divorce without having to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Unfortunately, there are times when you’re feeling so distressed and discouraged that social support is simply not enough  

But how do you know when you need professional help?

What are the signs that indicate you should consult a mental health professional?

When you’re dealing with emotional distress

Being human means experiencing a wide range of emotions every day.

You go to work frustrated because you didn’t get enough sleep and leave the office excited because you have a date. In other words, your mood fluctuates depending on circumstances.

And the truth is, we rarely pay attention to the various emotions that we experience throughout the day.    

Plus, not everyone has a rich emotional vocabulary.

For example, someone who doesn’t have a background in psychology might find it impossible to differentiate between depression and sadness.

In fact, most clients who visit my office for the first time tend to describe their mood and emotions as “bad”, “unpleasant”, “crushing”, “exhausting”, and so on.

Whether they’re dealing with depression, stress, anxiety, or any other specific condition, the one thing they all have in common is emotional distress.

In other words, they’re having a hard time managing their emotions and maintaining an overall balanced mood.

This translates to problematic behaviors such as substance abuse, procrastination, social isolation, stress eating, and so on.

If you’ve been dealing with emotional distress for several weeks (and can’t figure out why), perhaps it’s time to see a professional.

When you can’t see a way out of a difficult situation

There are times when we know exactly how we feel and the reason why we feel that way.

For instance, it’s absolutely normal to feel depressed and discouraged after losing your job.

In fact, many of us recover after a brief period and life gets back on track without professional help.

But what happens when you’ve spent so much time feeling depressed that you can’t see a way out of unemployment? Or when you’re too anxious and insecure to apply for new jobs.      

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with clients who were motivated and eager to overcome their difficulties but couldn’t figure out how.

In other words, they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They were hopelessly spinning around in circles trying to find their way out.

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Perhaps it’s time to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist, if you’re having trouble finding your way out of a difficult situation and nothing seems to work.

And that’s when you need someone who can provide a different perspective and point you in the right direction.

If you’re having trouble finding your way out of a difficult situation and nothing seems to work, perhaps it’s time to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

When you’ve witnessed a traumatic event

Trauma is the result of an event that elicits strong emotional reactions.

From war, disease, civil unrest, and natural disasters to death, separation, divorce, and abuse, there are numerous circumstances that can inflict emotional wounds.

Naturally, our mind is designed to cope with trauma by isolating the traumatic memory and keeping us away from society for a while.

Most experts agree that it takes about three months for someone to recover after witnessing a traumatic event. But there are people who, despite showing significant progress, never feel like they’re completely over trauma.

Without emotional support, traumatic events can trigger the onset of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression.

If you’ve been through a traumatic event and find it impossible to cope on your own, perhaps it’s time to talk to someone.

When you’re having trouble planning your next move

On many occasions, people opt to consult a mental health professional because they’re having trouble planning their future.

Whether it’s because they’re bogged down by negative thinking or too anxious to take risks, some people request counseling services because they feel unsure about the next move.

This is one of those circumstances where a psychologist can provide a lot more help than a psychiatrist. If, by any chance, you arrive at the office of a psychiatrist, he/she will most likely direct you to a counselor or psychologist.

When it comes to personal development goals, counseling or psychotherapy are an excellent opportunity to gain clarity and direction.  

If you’re having trouble planning your future, consult a psychologist who can help you figure out things.

When you’re having suicidal thoughts

Suicidal thoughts are often a clear sign of severe emotional distress.

In fact, there’s a wide range of mental health conditions that can cause suicidal ideation. Some of the most frequent ones are depression, chronic stress, and PTSD.

But people can contemplate suicide for all kinds of reasons. In other words, suicidal thoughts are not tied to a specific set of conditions.

There are times when we think about suicide without having an apparent reason. Or times when life is so harsh that ending your life seems like the only option to escape.

What you need to remember is that suicidal thoughts are a clear sign that you should see a psychiatrist or psychologist ASAP.

Final Thoughts on Psychologists vs Psychiatrists

Even though psychologists and psychiatrists use different methods and approaches, they both share common goals – promoting mental health and helping people overcome emotional struggles.

Despite the stigma associated with “being on meds” or receiving a psychiatric consultation, it’s fair to say that both psychologists and psychiatrists play an equally important role.

The only way to figure out for sure which one you need is by scheduling a consultation. Luckily, most mental health professionals have a strong online presence these days so it should be relatively easy to find one in your area.

If you’re dealing emotional problems or simply want an expert opinion, you can always pick up the phone and talk to a professional. 

Based on the info you provide, he/she can point you in the right direction.

Long story short, I believe we should replace the question “Should I see a psychologist or psychiatrist?” with “Should I see a mental health professional?”

In the end, your priority should be to receive the help you need to get well, regardless of whether it comes from psychology or psychiatry.

Finally, one proven way to improve your happiness and life satisfaction is to focus on goals that truly matter. To get started, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for various mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems – anxiety and depression.

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