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Doctor Decoded: Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

In his successful 2017 standup special 3 Mics on Netflix, comedian Neal Brennan jokes about his own depression treatment: “I went to a psychiatrist and a psychologist. If you don’t know the difference, congrats on having a great life.”

Of course, Brennan’s cheeky comment isn’t totally accurate, considering an estimated 35 percent of people with a major depressive episode don’t pursue treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Even among those who *do* get treatment, it’s not uncommon to be a little fuzzy on the difference between these two mental health specialists.

Psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental and behavioral disorders. They are physicians who can perform exams and prescribe medications. They will usually have the credentials MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). 

To become a psychiatrist, they’ve graduated from medical school, earned a license to practice psychiatry in their state, and completed a residency.

Many psychiatrists are also trained in psychotherapy, so you may be able to get a therapy session with the same person who prescribes your medicine. Psychiatrists are also trained in other types of mental health treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy.

Psychologists are trained in psychotherapy, but cannot prescribe medications in most states. 

Many psychologists specialize in certain types of therapy, such as couples therapy, hypnosis, or cognitive-behavioral therapy. They may also specialize in certain mental health topics, like anxiety disorders or LGBTQ issues.

To become a psychologist, many earn doctoral degrees, such as PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), which does not require going to medical school. After graduate school, psychology candidates must undergo supervised training and then pass a national exam to earn their license in practicing psychology. 

Psychologists and psychiatrists fulfill different roles, but they often work together and form professional relationships. A psychologist will often refer patients to a psychiatrist if medication is needed or desired, and the pair will often relay relevant information to each other to ensure comprehensive care for the patient.

You’ve probably heard of other mental health experts as well, like social workers, counselors, and therapists. These all require master’s degrees in their field and licensure in their state.

Learn more about treatment of depression here, and find out how anxiety is treated here.



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