Psychology and Psychiatry: What’s the Difference? Thumbnail

What is the difference between psychology and psychiatry? In spite of what some people think, psychiatrists and psychologists have very different practices.

Today, mental health services are increasingly sought out to address a number of problems, such as depression, anxiety, strained relationships, grief, trauma, or stress from everyday life. Many people experience uncertainty about the future, have trouble coping with a variety of emotions, or feel stuck in life.

If you identify with any of the problems above, you may benefit from the assistance of a mental health professional. Both psychologists and psychiatrists are trained professionals that treat a variety of mental health conditions and disorders. 

Both fields focus on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Sometimes confused with one another as they frequently overlap, psychology and psychiatry are actually two different mental health disciplines, each with important and complementary purposes.

What is psychiatry?

Medical professionals within the field of psychiatry (typically Medical Doctors, Doctors of Osteopathy, Advanced Practical Registered Nurses, or Nurse Practitioners) are trained in biology, chemistry, and anatomy, and have an understanding of the complex relationship between mental illnesses, genetics, family history, and medical conditions that can impact mental health. 

Psychiatrists evaluate medical and psychological data to diagnose mental health disorders and develop treatment plans for patients.

After diagnosing a patient, a psychiatrist can use a variety of treatments to address the mental and physical components of mental health. While psychiatrists may employ many different techniques to treat mental illness (see below), the most common form of treatment is medication.

  • Psychotherapy - This form of therapy encompasses a variety of techniques that aim to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behavior.

  • Psychosocial interventions - These therapies help improve a person's behaviors and relationships with society in order to reduce the impact of their condition.
  • Medication - Common medications prescribed for mental health issues include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers, stimulants, and antipsychotic drugs.

What is psychology?

Psychologists, and other therapists with advanced degrees and independent licensure such as clinical social workers, professional counselors, and marriage and family therapists, are skilled at utilizing various forms of psychotherapy for treatments. 

These therapies can be used to help people express emotions, cope during stressful situations, overcome addictions, manage mental health conditions, and learn strategies to live a healthier and happier life.

Psychology studies the mind, emotions, and behavior. Mental health professionals trained in psychology examine how cognitive, genetic, family, and social factors influence a person’s actions and reactions.

The most common types of psychotherapy include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that teaches people how to identify and alter destructive thought patterns that affect their behavior and emotions.
  • Psychodynamic therapy examines unconscious processes that influence a patient's current behavior.
  • Humanistic or existential therapy emphasizes a person's individual nature rather than comparing similarities between related groups of people. It also focuses on exploring one’s meaning, attachments, and loss.
  • Interpersonal therapy focuses on resolving interpersonal problems for symptom recovery.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy teaches people skills to regulate their emotions, handle stress in a healthy manner, improve relationships, and live mindfully.
  • Eclectic or integrative therapy utilizes a combination of techniques to tailor treatment to the specific needs of each patient, depending on the problem, the treatment goals, and the person's motivation.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy helps individuals accept their emotions and behaviors rather than avoiding or fighting them.

Similarities and Differences

The distinction between psychiatrists and psychologists can be confusing. While both psychiatrists and psychologists can provide valuable and often complementary treatment, there are some key differences. 

Differences between the two disciplines relate to their training, treatments they provide, and the conditions they treat.


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor trained to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. To become a psychiatrist, one must complete medical school and pass a state licensing examination, followed by several years of medical residency training. 

Advanced Practice Nurses who also prescribe hold a Masters Degree in Nursing and practicing under the supervision of a psychiatrist can assess, diagnose, and treat, along with prescribing medications for mental health issues.

Psychologists address the mental and behavioral components of psychological issues largely through the use of talk therapy, although other techniques such as Brainspotting and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing are also utilized for treatment of trauma and mood disorders. 

Psychologists are trained in psychological testing to evaluate personality, intellectual or academic factors, as well as mood or behavioral issues. To become a psychologist, a person will need to earn a doctoral degree in psychology. 

This will require at least 6 years of coursework and supervised experience. Upon graduation, individuals will need to complete a comprehensive residency or internship. 

Psychologists also need to pass a state licensing exam to practice. In certain states, psychologists who wish to become prescribing psychologists can complete two additional years of study and two years of supervised prescribing under a psychiatrist.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Professional Counselors, and Marriage and Family Therapists also address psychosocial issues such as relationship quality, family dynamics, grief, loss, and effects of life events. 

Most of these clinicians achieve a masters degree in social work or counseling and complete an internship before licensure.

Treatments Provided

Both psychiatrists and psychologists can address the mental components that relate to psychological distress, and a psychiatrist can perform exams and checkups for physical health issues that may be impacting a person’s mood or behavior. 

A psychiatrist can prescribe and manage a person’s medication and can perform some neurological procedures, such as brain stimulation therapies.

Psychologists focus on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of psychological distress. This usually involves psychotherapy, or talk therapy. Talk therapy encompasses a variety of techniques that address a person’s emotions and behaviors. 

In several states and in select military branches, some psychologists can prescribe medication as an adjunct to the psychotherapy they provide..

Conditions Treated

Both psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to treat all mental illnesses, from phase of life issues to severe mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. 

If conditions require medication, a psychologist may refer to a psychiatrist; likewise, a psychiatrist may refer a patient being treated with medication to a psychologist for more intensive psychotherapy or psychological testing.

Choosing Between Psychology and Psychiatry

If you've decided to seek professional mental help, you may be wondering whether you should see a psychiatrist or psychologist. Many people benefit from participating in both treatment options.

For individuals with disorders like bipolar disorder, ADHD, and severe anxiety, it may be beneficial to see a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation.

For individuals that are suffering from depression, grief, PTSD, anxiety, stress, and other difficult emotions, seeking therapy may be an excellent starting place. In a confidential and safe environment, a psychologist will typically meet with you more frequently for appointments that usually run an hour. 

During one-on-one sessions, you will talk about your stressors, identify unhealthy behavior patterns, and learn new coping skills.

Signs to Seek Treatment

Stress, anxiety, and depression may arise when life throws unforeseen challenges and changes. Not all cases of stress and anxiety are a sign of mental illness, but when symptoms intensify or affect you on a daily basis, you may benefit from seeing a mental health professional.

Here are the most common signs that indicate you might need to consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist:

  • Excessive sadness, worry, or fear
  • Difficulty concentrating or learning
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Frequent anger or irritability
  • Self isolation and/or avoiding social situations
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Substance abuse
  • Health problems due to mental health issues
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Trauma
  • Recent hospitalization for mental health

Untreated mental health conditions and disorders can intensify or lead to life-threatening situations. When you are feeling overwhelmed by your emotions or are unable to function, seeking treatment can help you find relief and assist you in getting back to a normal life. 

If you are experiencing thoughts of self harm or want to harm others, it is important to seek medical attention right away.

Mental Health Services at CHE

When mental health conditions impede a person’s ability to lead a normal life, both psychiatry and psychology offer effective solutions for treatment and symptom relief. 

If you are unsure which provider is best for your condition, contact your primary care physician to discuss the appropriate course of treatment.

CHE offers treatment for a variety of mental health issues virtually with our

network of over 850 licensed psychologists, therapists and psychiatry providers. To learn more about our mental health services and qualified mental health professionals, please call 888-515-3834.