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Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist: Questions to Ask Your Referring Doctor


When you're experiencing psychological or emotional difficulties, visiting your primary care physician (PCP) is the first step to feeling better. Your PCP will interview you and, based on the nature and severity of your symptoms, may refer you to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. However, many people are often confused by the level of care they could receive by a psychiatrist vs. psychologist.

While both are state licensed, work with mental health issues, have training in psychotherapy, and perform research, there are many significant differences between these mental health professionals, says Psychology Today. This article will provide you questions to ask your PCP so you can work together to identify the right provider for your treatment options.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

Board-certified psychiatrists are mental health professionals with a doctor of medicine degree (MD). After medical school, psychiatrists continue with a four-year psychiatric residency, including extensive psychotherapy training, to learn about diagnosing and treating various psychological conditions, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Some psychiatrists choose to further their training with a sub-specialization in psychopharmacology, substance abuse, or neuropsychiatry.

Psychiatrists are responsible for diagnosing mental health disorders. While behavioral therapy techniques are important in psychiatry, clinical psychiatrists are more focused on performing physical examinations and interpreting laboratory tests and brain imaging. You may be referred to a psychiatrist by your PCP or psychologist for prescription drugs required to treat a mental health issue.

What Is a Psychologist?

Psychologists are scientists who study behavior and emotion. Psychology is much broader than mental illness and is broken into two categories: research and clinical. Research psychologists study human behavior, whereas clinical psychologists specialize in specific conditions, counseling, or psychosocial therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy -- a form of psychotherapy that treats issues by altering distorted emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.

A psychologist holds a doctoral degree in psychology, such as a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). Because psychologists aren't medical doctors, they cannot prescribe medication. Instead, they use their expert knowledge of human behavior and cognitive processes to diagnose and treat patients.

Psychologists may counsel families or treat patients with anxiety disorders, addictions, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, or mental disabilities. Some psychologists offer psychological testing and assessment for intelligence and giftedness, attention deficit disorders, learning disabilities, autism and Asperger's, personality disorders, and other psychological issues.

Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist Similarities

While there are important differences between psychiatrists and psychologists, the UCLA School of Medicine says their roles may interrelate. Psychologists and psychiatrists often treat the same patients, and may work together to improve patients' mental health. For instance, your psychologist might perform psychological testing while your psychiatrist prescribes medications for and treats your medical condition. Follow up for continued therapy sessions with your psychologist may be advised.

If you have a mental health concern, Dignity Health offers professional, compassionate, and confidential counseling or psychiatric care to address your emotional and physical health needs.

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