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Mental Health Center

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Psychologist or Psychiatrist: Which Is Right for You?

By Tony Rehagen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD

If you have mental health concerns, you should seek help. But where do you go? How do you know what type of doctor you should talk to? Do you look for a psychiatrist or psychologist?

If you’re unsure what the difference is, you’re not alone. “We get that all the time,” says Tristan Gorrindo, MD, director of the American Psychiatric Association Division of Education. “There’s a lot of confusion out there."

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There are similarities, but there are important differences, too. Here’s what you need to know to decide which is right for you.

How They’re Alike

Psychiatrists and psychologists are different types of doctors trained to help you deal with mental health issues. Both are there to talk you through problems. They aim to provide you with the means to manage the issues in your everyday life.

How They’re Different

Education

Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MDs) who graduate from medical school, have a year of medical internship, and have 3 years of residency in the assessment and treatment of mental health disorders.

Psychologists have a doctoral degree in an area of psychology, the study of the mind and human behavior. They’re not medical doctors. A psychologist can have a PhD in philosophy or a PsyD in clinical or counseling psychology. Typically, they do 1-2 years of internship. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are also trained in giving psychological tests (like IQ tests or personality tests).

Because of their medical training, psychiatrists can prescribe medication -- probably the most commonly known distinction between the two fields. But a few states allow psychologists to prescribe a limited number of psychiatric medications if they’ve taken a course in psychopharmacology.

The Approach

Both psychiatrists and psychologists are typically trained to practice psychotherapy -- talking with their patients about their problems. But the differences in background and training translates into different approaches to solving your mental health problems.

Psychologists look closely at your behavior. “If you’re depressed and can’t get out of bed, there’s a behavioral activation,” says C. Vaile Wright, PhD, a director at the American Psychological Association. Psychologists will track sleep patterns, eating patterns, and the negative thoughts that might be causing or contributing to the problem.

“Psychiatrists have a stronger sense of biology and neurochemistry,” says Ranna Parekh, MD, a director at the American Psychiatric Association. “Theirs is going to be a diagnosis of exclusion. For instance, before we call someone depressed, we’re going to make sure they don’t instead have some vitamin deficiency or thyroid problem.” Once they’ve made a mental health diagnosis, psychiatrists often prescribe you medicine.

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