Their titles sound similar, and they’re both trained to diagnose and treat people with mental health conditions. Yet psychologists and psychiatrists aren’t the same. Each of these professionals has a different educational background, training, and role in treatment.

Psychiatrists have a medical degree along with advanced qualifications from residency and a specialty in psychiatry. They use talk therapy, medications, and other treatments to treat people with mental health conditions.

Psychologists have an advanced degree, such as a PhD or PsyD. Most commonly, they use talk therapy to treat mental health conditions. They may also act as consultants along with other healthcare providers or study therapy for entire treatment programs.

Both types of providers must be licensed in their area to practice. Psychiatrists are also licensed as medical doctors.

Read on to learn more about the differences between the two and how to decide which you should see.

Psychiatrists and psychologists use different tools to treat mental health conditions. Sometimes they work in different environments.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists can work in any of these settings:

  • private practices
  • hospitals
  • psychiatric hospitals
  • university medical centers
  • nursing homes
  • prisons
  • rehabilitation programs
  • hospice programs

They often treat people with a mental health condition that requires medication, such as:

Psychiatrists diagnose these and other mental health conditions using:

  • psychological tests
  • one-on-one evaluations
  • lab tests to rule out physical causes of symptoms

Once they’ve made a diagnosis, psychiatrists may refer you to a psychotherapist for therapy or prescribe medication.

Some of the medications psychiatrists prescribe include:

  • antidepressants
  • antipsychotic medications
  • mood stabilizers
  • stimulants
  • sedatives

After prescribing medication to someone, a psychiatrist will closely monitor them for signs of improvement and any side effects. Based on this information, they might make changes to the dosage or type of medication.

Psychiatrists can also prescribe other types of treatments, including:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy. Electroconvulsive therapy involves applying electrical currents to the brain. This treatment is usually reserved for cases of severe depression that don’t respond to any other types of treatment.
  • Light therapy. This involves using artificial light to treat seasonal depression, especially in places that don’t get a lot of sunlight.

When treating children, psychiatrists will begin with a comprehensive mental health examination. This helps them evaluate the many components underlying a child’s mental health issues, including emotional, cognitive, educational, familial, and genetic.

A psychiatrist’s treatment plan for children may involve:

  • individual, group, or family talk therapy
  • medication
  • consultation with other doctors or professionals at schools, social agencies, or community organizations

Psychologists

Psychologists similarly work with people who have mental health conditions. They diagnose these conditions using interviews, surveys, and observations.

One of the big differences between these mental health professionals is that psychologists can’t prescribe medication. However, with additional qualifications, psychologists can currently prescribe medication in five states:

  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • New Mexico

They can also prescribe medication if they work in the military, Indian Health Service, or Guam.

A psychologist can work in any of the same settings as a psychiatrist, including:

  • private practices
  • hospitals
  • psychiatric hospitals
  • university medical centers
  • nursing homes
  • prisons
  • rehabilitation programs
  • hospice programs

They commonly treat people with talk therapy. This treatment involves sitting with the therapist and talking through any issues. Over a series of sessions, a psychologist will work with someone to help them better understand their symptoms and how to manage them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that psychologists frequently use. It’s an approach that focuses on helping people overcome negative thoughts and patterns of thinking.

Talk therapy can take many forms, including:

  • one-on-one with the therapist
  • family therapy
  • group therapy

When treating children, psychologists may assess areas other than mental health, including cognitive functioning and academic capabilities.

They may also perform types of therapy that psychiatrists normally don’t do, such as play therapy. This type of therapy involves letting children play freely in a safe playroom with very few rules or limits.

By watching children play, psychologists can gain insight into disruptive behaviors and what a child is uncomfortable expressing. They can then teach children communication skills, problem-solving skills, and more positive behaviors.

In addition to differences in practice, psychiatrists and psychologists also have different educational backgrounds and training requirements.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists graduate from medical school with one of two degrees:

  • doctor of medicine (MD)
  • doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO)

Learn more about the difference between an MD and a DO.

After getting a degree, they take a written exam to get licensed in their state to practice medicine.

To become a practicing psychiatrist, they must complete a four-year residency. During this program, they work with people in hospitals and outpatient settings. They learn how to diagnose and treat mental health conditions using medication, therapy, and other treatments.

Psychiatrists must take an exam given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to become board-certified. They have to get recertified every 10 years.

Some psychiatrists get extra training in a specialty, such as:

  • addiction medicine
  • child and adolescent psychiatry
  • geriatric psychiatry
  • forensic psychiatry
  • pain medicine
  • sleep medicine

Psychologists

Psychologists complete graduate school and doctoral-level training. They can pursue one of these degrees:

  • doctor of philosophy (PhD)
  • doctor of psychology (PsyD)

It takes four to six years to earn one of these degrees. Once they’ve earned a degree, psychologists complete another one to two years of training that involves working with people. Finally, they must take an exam to get licensed in their state.

Like psychiatrists, psychologists can also get speciality training in areas such as:

  • clinical psychology
  • geropsychology
  • neuropsychology
  • psychoanalysis
  • forensic psychology
  • child and adolescent psychology

A psychiatrist may be a better choice if you have a more complex mental health issue that requires medication, such as:

  • severe depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia

If you’re going through a difficult time or want to work on better understanding your thoughts and behaviors, a psychologist may be a better option.

If you’re a parent looking into treatment for your child, a psychologist may be able to provide different types of therapy options, such as play therapy. A psychiatrist may be a better choice if your child has a more complex mental issue that requires medication.

Keep in mind that many common mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, are often treated with a combination of medication and talk therapy.

In these cases, it’s often helpful to see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist. The psychologist will do regular therapy sessions, while the psychiatrist manages medications.

Whichever specialist you choose to see, make sure they have:

  • experience treating your type of mental health condition
  • an approach and manner that makes you feel comfortable
  • enough open appointments so you don’t have to wait to be seen

Financial considerations

If you have insurance, you may need to ask your primary care doctor for a referral to both a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Other plans may let you see both without a referral.

If you don’t have insurance and are concerned about treatment costs, you still have options. Consider reaching out to local colleges with psychiatry, psychology, or behavior health programs. They may offer free or low-cost services provided by graduate students under professional supervision.

Some psychologists also offer a sliding-scale payment option. This allows you to pay what you can afford. Don’t feel uncomfortable asking if someone offers this; it’s a fairly common question for psychologists. If they won’t give you an answer or seem unwilling to discuss prices with you, they’re probably not a good fit for you, anyway.

NeedyMeds, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people find affordable treatment and medication, also offers tools for finding low-cost clinics and discounts on medication.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are two types of mental health professionals. While they have several similarities, they play different roles in healthcare settings.

Both treat a variety of mental health conditions, but in different ways. While psychiatrists often use a mix of therapy and medication, psychologists focus on providing therapy.