What Is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?
Psychiatrists and psychologists are both professionals who specialize in the field of mental health, but they differ in terms of education, training, and practice.
- Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can diagnose and treat mental health disorders through a combination of therapy, medication, and other medical interventions.
- They have the authority to prescribe medications and perform medical procedures related to mental health.
- They must complete both medical school (to earn an MD) as well as a residency program in psychiatry. So it typically takes 8-10 years of postgraduate study to become a psychiatrist.
On the other hand...
- Psychologists are professionals who have advanced degrees in psychology. They are trained to diagnose and treat mental health disorders through various forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, and dialectal behavior therapy.
- Psychologists cannot prescribe medications, but they often work closely with psychiatrists and other medical professionals to provide comprehensive care for their patients.
- Becoming a psychologist typically involves completing a doctoral degree in psychology (a PhD or PsyD), which can take 5-7 years of postgraduate study plus another 1-2 years of clinical training.
Overall, psychiatrists are trained in both medicine and mental health, while psychologists focus solely on mental health. Both psychologists and psychiatrists can find work in a private practice, mental health clinic, treatment facility (such as drug or alcohol rehab centers), general or psychiatric hospital, academic center, and many other settings.
(Learn more about the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists from Dr. Margaret Stuber.)
What Does a Psychologist Do?
“My goal is demystifying what psychology and therapy is, especially for communities where there's a lot of stigma around mental health treatment. It's really just learning how to manage life more effectively. And then they're like, “Why isn't everybody in therapy?” And my work is done!”
Meet Dr. Jocelyn Meza, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at UCLA, as well as the Associate Director of the Youth Stress and Mood (YSAM) Program and the Principal Investigator of the Health Equity & Access Research & Treatment (HEART) lab.
According to Dr. Meza, her work as a psychologist focuses on using cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients learn new ways to address mental health challenges:
“We’re teaching people skills,” she explains. “And in order for us to teach them skills and see if it works, we monitor their behaviors each week.”
“I assign homework all the time,” she insists. “Monitor negative thoughts. And then come back next week and let's talk about how that went.”
In fact, the frequency of patient contact is one of the main differences between psychologists and psychiatrists.
“We usually have more frequent contact with the patient,” Dr. Meza says. “We see them, depending on severity, once a week for an hour versus psychiatry is more spaced out. Once every 2 or 3 months, depending on their medication.”
But she’s quick to note that psychiatrists, as well as primary care doctors and other professionals (such as social workers), all play an important part in providing patient care:
“In many instances everybody's working together as a team. It's a collaborative interdisciplinary approach.”
And being a psychologist doesn’t mean Dr. Meza spends all day, every day in clinic treating patients. As a UCLA professor and science practitioner, she also spends good portion of her time doing research and analysis.
“What I do is I collect data and test the efficacy of treatments,” she clarifies. “That's how we are able to determine what works and what doesn’t…”
How to Become a Psychologist
“When I started UCLA as an undergrad, I immediately declared my psychology major. And then, 13 years later, I officially became a psychologist!”
Indeed Dr. Meza’s journey to becoming a licensed clinical psychologist required extensive training and education:
“It took 4 years of undergrad, then 5 years to complete a PhD, then 2 years of clinical internship, then 2 years of post-doctoral work, and then two tests in order to get licensed.”
While the requirements vary by state, psychologists in California must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) and the California Psychology Laws and Ethics Examination (CPLEE).
Once licensed, there are several types of therapy a psychologist can provide:
“There's individual therapy, couples therapy, family therapy and group-based therapy,” says Dr. Meza. “Those are the main four.”
There are also several different specialties and certifications a psychologist can pursue. While the most popular is clinical psychology, there’s also neuropsychology (the study of how brain structure and function impact an individual's thoughts, emotions, and behavior) and forensic psychology (which applies psychological principles and knowledge to legal and criminal justice systems), among others.
(What Is a Psychologist? Click the link to learn more...)
What Does a Psychiatrist Do?
“I like to help connect the dots for my patients and emphasize the connection between what's going on in the body, physically, with what's going on in the mind. When my patients understand this connection, they get better.”
Meet Dr. Erica Lubliner, double board-certified psychiatrist at UCLA and director of the UCLA Health Spanish-Speaking Psychosocial Clinic.
“There's a lot of confusion between the terms psychiatrist and psychologist,” Dr. Lubliner admits.
“A psychiatrist evaluates, diagnoses, and treats psychiatric disorders. We are trained physicians who specialize in mental health. And treatment involves psychopharmacology or writing prescriptions for medication as well as therapy and behavioral interventions.”
Other than the ability to prescribe medication, how else do psychiatrists and psychologist differ?
“Because I’m a physician, I can look at labs and imaging,” explains Dr. Lubliner. “I can communicate with primary care doctors and other specialists to collaborate and recommend treatment while educating my patients on physical and mental health disorders.”
In fact, Dr. Lubliner argues that psychiatrists make excellent detectives, finding answers and solutions that others might have overlooked:
“Despite the fact that we don't touch or examine our patients via physical exam (with some exceptions), we are great clinicians who must be able to sift through medical information and determine what are the symptoms of mental disorders, and which are not. We have to keep an open mind, so that we don't fall into cognitive biases. So psychiatrists can be really good diagnosticians and catch conditions that others miss.”
And according to Dr. Lubliner, there are many different places where psychiatrists can put those detective skills to good use:
“Psychiatrists can see patients directly or supervise other professionals as they treat the patients. We can work in clinics, hospitals, a combination of both and we can also lead teams. In fact, the first CEO of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center was a psychiatrist!”
Some even take their unique skill set off site and into the streets: “There are also physicians in our specialty that practice street psychiatry where they treat homeless or unhoused individuals on site.”
But wherever they practice their craft, psychiatrists are key to the treatment of mental health issues: “We are vital team members in both inpatient and outpatient settings.”
Dr. Lubliner also believes that a collaborative mindset is a key ingredient to success in this field: “I also love collaborating with other mental health professionals, such as social workers and psychologists. It’s so powerful to work as a team for the benefit of the patient and their families.”
How to Become a Psychiatrist
“I didn't have a full picture of what a psychiatrist could do, except prescribe medication and talk to patients. But when I discovered I could be a role model and impact a community by putting my leadership and educational experiences to work within psychiatry, that's when I really got excited about it.”
Unlike psychologists—who go to graduate school to get a PhD or PsyD after they finish their undergraduate education—psychiatrists must complete medical school and graduate with an MD or DO, which usually takes 4 years.
Then they must complete a residency program in psychiatry, which takes another 4 years. If they choose to pursue a specific subspecialty and certification (adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, etc.) that’s another 1-2 years of training.
For example, Dr. Lubliner had do some additional training for her specialty:
“I specialized in child and adolescent psychiatry, so I did an extra year of training,” she explains. “If you want to pursue that specialty, you do 3 years of adult and then you fast track into 2 years of child fellowship.”
Additionally, to become board-certified, there is an American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (APBN) initial certification exam to pass as well as specialty, subspecialty, and continuing education exams.
And why did Dr. Lubliner decide to pursue this field?
“I loved talking to people already. I’m curious and interested in how people feel and why they do things. And there were communities that needed Spanish-speaking doctors to fight mental health stigma. So it called my name.”
(What Is a Psychiatrist? Click the link to learn more...)
Mental Health Awareness Month
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, both Dr. Meza and Dr. Lubliner want the world to know there’s no shame in getting help. Unfortunately, that’s a battle they fight every day.
“In many communities, they’re worried people will talk badly about them if they seek treatment,” says Dr. Meza. “Or that therapy is some kind of voodoo or they’re going to end up in restraints.” But it’s just like any other kind of treatment, she insists. “If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you go to an oncologist. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, you go to a psychologist and learn how to manage it.”
And Dr. Lubliner agrees: “I want communities that have a lot of stigma to know that there is help, that it's safe to talk about what hurts you, about the secrets and shame that we keep hidden, and that things can get better,” she says. “You don't have to do it alone. Our doors are open. Ask for help.”