If you’re struggling with mental health issues, you may be considering getting professional help. And if that’s the case, you might be asking yourself “what is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?”
The confusion is justified because the two are very similar. But they do have distinct differences. In this article, we explore the key difference between the two, including the treatments they can provide, the conditions they treat, and how much they cost, so that you can better understand which will be most effective for you.
Psychiatrist vs psychologist
Psychiatrists and psychologists are both trained in mental health, and can help people with psychological issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. The biggest difference between psychologists and psychiatrists are the treatments they can provide. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medicines, provide psychotherapy (talk therapy), and offer other treatments like brain stimulation therapies. Psychologists are mental health professionals who can provide psychotherapy only.
Psychiatrists are doctors who have taken extra training to specialise in mental health. They focus on the causes, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions—the full spectrum. To be able to do so, they complete at least 11 total years of training, which includes a medical degree, at least one year working as a GP, then five or more years of mental health. The fields that they are trained in include genetics, biochemistry, psychology, neurology, social science, and psychopharmacology.
Psychologists are health professionals who are trained in human behaviour only, with a Doctorate or Masters in psychology. They diagnose mental illnesses and provide psychotherapy. If they have a Doctorate, they are technically doctors but not medical doctors, so cannot prescribe medication. With extra training, they can also specialise in specific areas like neuropsychology, clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and organisational psychology.
There is a lot of crossover between the conditions that psychiatrists and psychologists can treat, which can make it harder to distinguish them. Psychiatrists usually treat people with complex and severe conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression, which may be helped with a combination of medicines, talk therapy, and other treatments. Psychologists tend to treat people with conditions that can be helped with psychotherapy only, including behavioural problems, learning difficulties, anxiety, and also depression. If medication is necessary to treat a mental illness, or if it is influenced by physical (bodily) factors, a psychiatrist is best placed to help. But if the issue is purely psychological and doesn’t require medication—like an anxiety disorder—a psychologist can help (a psychiatrist can help too, but they are more expensive). Psychiatrists and psychologists can work together too, with an initial diagnosis for a patient made by a psychiatrist, who then refers the patient to a psychologist for the talk therapy treatment.
When visiting a psychiatrist, you can expect to talk about your medical history, health conditions, and medications that you are currently taking. They will aim to understand the biological causes of your mental health issue, before proceeding with treatment. Psychologists, on the other hand, might aim to understand the social, cultural, and environmental causes of your mental health issue, before proceeding with psychotherapy.
The psychotherapy that psychiatrists and psychologists provide can take a variety of forms, such as one-on-one therapy, couples therapy, family therapy, or group therapy, depending on what is most effective for your mental health issue. The types of psychotherapy are also various, with some common types including:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Psychoanalysis (Freudian and Jungian)
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)
- Humanistic/experiential therapy
Of these types, cognitive behavioural therapy is considered to be one of the most effective—the “gold standard.” But the best type of therapy may depend on your particular mental health issue.
If you’re thinking of seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist in Australia, you should first visit your GP to discuss your issues. They should be able to advise whether a psychiatrist or psychologist will be best for your situation, and can provide a referral for you. To see a psychiatrist, you’ll need a referral from the GP, although you don’t need a referral to see a psychologist.
In Australia, both psychiatrists and psychologists need to be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
If you’re wondering where therapists fit into all this, they are usually licensed counsellors or clinical psychologists, not psychiatrists.
The main differences between psychologists and psychiatrists
Common conditions treated
Severe depression, including suicidal thoughts
Eating disorders like anorexia, and body image issues
Doctorate degree, GP experience, and psychiatry degree (11+ years)
Doctorate or Masters in psychology (8+ years)
Cost (rough in Australia)
$300 for 45 minute consult (minus $161 Medicare rebate for eligible people)
$260 for an hourly consult (minus $129 Medicare rebate for eligible people)
Should I see a psychologist or psychiatrist?
As we mentioned above, if you have mental health issues and are thinking of getting some professional help, you should talk to your doctor before doing anything else. They should be able to tell you whether a psychiatrist or psychologist is most suitable for your situation.
If your situation is severe or life threatening, they are highly likely to refer you to a psychiatrist. If this isn’t the case, and your mental health issue doesn’t require medication, they may refer you to a psychologist.
To break things down further, you may need to see a psychiatrist if:
- Your condition is severe or life threatening, like schizophrenia, severe depression, or anorexia.
- You are thinking of hurting or killing yourself
- Your condition is persistent or repetitive
- Other treatment is not working for you
You may need to see a psychologist if:
- You have less severe mental health issues that are affecting your life, like anxiety or depression.
- You feel that you need support to cope with life
You need a referral to see a psychiatrist, but not a psychologist. An Australian GP can also refer you to a psychologist, although this isn’t necessary. Australia also has something called a Mental Health Treatment Plan, which allows you to claim substantial Medicare rebates (about 50%). This can be accessed and approved by your GP.