What's the difference between a
psychiatrist and a psychologist
What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and who should you see? Both of them are mental health clinicians, but they come from different backgrounds and support people in different ways.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are both types of mental health clinicians, which means that they are clinical professionals who work to improve the mental health of clients or patients. But they went through different training programs and focus on different aspects of mental health. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who went through specialty training in psychiatry after completing medical school; they can prescribe medications and give talking-based treatments for mental health problems, including very complex problems. On the other hand, a clinical psychologist is a non-medical clinician who went through training in clinical psychology after completing a degree in psychology. They can also give talking-based treatments for mental health problems.
A psychiatrist has gone through medical school and then through a specialty training program in psychiatry. To become a psychiatrist, they go through at least 11 years of training (often more), typically starting with at least 4-6 years in medical school, then at least 1-2 years training as a junior doctor, and at least 5 years of training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
Psychiatrists can make mental health diagnoses after considering someone’s symptoms and physical and mental health background. They can also prescribe medication-based or non-medication-based management strategies, and they can administer talking-based therapies. They often treat complex mental illnesses and conditions (such as severe depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder).
Clinical psychologists have a minimum of six years of university training and supervised experience in mental health. They can hold a Masters or Doctorate (or PhD, which qualifies them to be referred to as a [non-medical] doctor) in psychology. Clinical psychologists have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. When it comes to treatment, psychologists focus on talk-based therapies to treat patients. They tend to see people who might have behavioural problems, learning difficulties, ADHD, depression, or anxiety.
Ethan* is a 38-year-old man living in rural Victoria. About two years ago, he started to notice that he was feeling very stressed at work, and he was also having a lot of trouble getting the same enjoyment out of activities that he used to get. Fortunately, his GP actively asked him how he was feeling, and recognised that Ethan’s symptoms meant that he could benefit from professional support. She referred him to a psychologist at Call to Mind. Ethan then went through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for 18 months, and during that time, he experienced a significant improvement in his symptoms, as well as in his understanding of himself and how his mind works. He stopped seeing his psychologist several months ago, but he continues to use the tools he learned through his CBT sessions.
Phoebe* is a 30-year-old woman living with her two young children on New South Wales’ North Coast. Six months ago, she started seeing her GP for depressive symptoms. Her GP recommended that she see a psychologist and make some lifestyle changes. This improved her symptoms somewhat, but she still faced ongoing difficulties.
Phoebe’s GP decided that he wasn’t sure about her diagnosis and also wasn’t sure if she might need medications. So Phoebe was referred to a psychiatrist at Call to Mind. The psychiatrist clarified Phoebe’s diagnosis and, together with Phoebe and her psychologist, the decision was made to trial an antidepressant medication.
Over the next three months, Phoebe’s symptoms noticeably improved, and she found that she became better at some of the techniques she was learning with her psychologist as well. Phoebe continues to see her GP regularly. These regular check-ins help Phoebe to stay well, and they also allow her and her GP to identify if or when she needs to see her psychiatrist again.
*We aren’t using people’s real names in these case studies. These clinical anecdotes represent combinations of multiple cases, which helps to preserve the anonymity of individual patients.
They're both here to help
It is common for psychiatrists and psychologists to work together, often with a psychiatrist making an initial assessment and diagnosis, and referring on to a psychologist for ongoing care via talking therapy.
It is quite common for people to be referred by a GP for one-off psychiatry assessments (and sometimes follow up psychiatry appointments). In such cases, the psychiatrist may refer you to a psychologist. Even though you do not need a referral to see a psychologist, you will need a referral and a Mental Health Treatment Plan to receive a Medicare benefit for psychology visits.
Call to Mind offers psychiatry and psychology appointments, and is also able to arrange GP consults for those in need of a referral to see a mental health clinician.