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It's not as simple as who tends to what, like the difference between a
goatherd and shepherd. Both kinds of professionals treat people with problems
that vary widely by degree and type, from mild anxiety to schizophrenia. Both can practice
psychotherapy, and both can do research.
The short answer is, psychiatrists are medical doctors and psychologists are
not. The suffix "-iatry" means "medical treatment," and "-logy" means "science"
or "theory." So psychiatry is the medical treatment of the psyche, and
psychology is the science of the psyche.
Psychiatrists begin their careers in medical school. After earning their MD,
they go on to four years of residency training in mental health, typically at a
hospital's psychiatric department.
According to Marcia Goin, MD, past-president of the American Psychiatric
Association and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of
Southern California, psychiatric residencies include a range of subspecialized
training, such as working with children and adolescents.
After completing their residency, these physicians can be licensed to
Psychologists go through five to seven years of academic graduate study,
culminating in a doctorate degree. They may hold a PhD or a PsyD. Those who are
mainly interested in clinical psychology -- treating patients as opposed to
focusing on research -- may pursue a PsyD.
Licensing requirements for psychologists vary from state to state, but at
least a one- or two-year internship is required to apply for a license to
As medical doctors, psychiatrists can do what most psychologists in the
United States cannot: They can prescribe drugs.
Recently the state of Louisiana allowed psychologists to write prescriptions after consulting with a psychiatrist,
joining the state of New Mexico, which allowed psychologists to begin
prescribing in 2002.
A common misconception about psychiatrists is that they only treat people
with severe mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, diseases for
which medication is the mainstay of treatment, leaving psychotherapy to
psychologists and patients with less severe problems.
Psychiatrists who work at clinics and hospitals certainly see many hard
cases. "The major patients they see are severely mentally ill, but there are
others who are not," Goin tells WebMD. She says she practices a lot of
psychotherapy in her private office and that most of her patients there are not
Increasingly, however, psychiatrists in private practice spend their time
with medication management and not psychotherapy. Other mental health providers
usually do therapy sessions, and when they see a patient who could benefit from
medication, they send the patient to a psychiatrist for an evaluation and
possibly a prescription.