Psychology vs Psychiatry vs Psychotherapy: What's The Difference
In the world of psychology, the relationship between the three Ps – Psychologist, Psychiatrist, and Psychotherapist – can be confusing. Most of us know they are all considered mental health experts, but have you ever wondered which profession does what? How exactly do they differ from each other? Most importantly, if you or your loved ones are struggling with mental health issues and need professional help from one of the three Ps, which one should you seek help from? And who would be the best person to support you through your healing journey?
At a first glance, the distinctions between the three Ps might seem slight. The titles themselves can seem quite similar – they all begin with “Psych”. Yet although they may look pretty similar, their roles are different, and they don’t actually provide the same mental health services. Getting confused by the three Ps is understandable; but knowing the differences between them could help you to choose the right mental health professional for whatever needs you may have. This knowledge can be precious and invaluable to your and your loved ones’ mental and emotional health. Read on to learn about the differences between a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a psychotherapist; the relationship between the three Ps; and how to choose the right expert to fit your needs.
What Is a Psychologist?
Psychologists specialize in psychology: the study of mind and behavior. Their role is to help their clients – people with mental health issues – understand the way they feel, think, and behave. Generally speaking, a psychologist can perform diagnoses—a process used to find out which specific mental health issue their client is struggling with. They use diagnostic tools, including psychometric tests, clinical interviews and observations, therapeutic techniques, questionnaires, and exercises. And with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – a criterion that explains the causes and symptoms of different mental health issues, psychologists can analyze the results from those assessments to help determine what issue their client has. After diagnosing the clients, psychologists can design suitable treatment plans for them to recover from the issues in question.
A doctorate degree – typically a PhD or a PsyD – is essential for someone to become an accredited psychologist. The traditional career path of a psychologist goes from a bachelor’s degree in psychology to a master’s degree, to a doctorate program. At the graduate level, a psychology graduate can choose to specialize in one of the many branches of psychology according to their own interests. After they complete their doctorate, they will become a psychologist focusing on one particular area. Here are some of the most common types:
- Clinical Psychologists: They work with clients with moderate to severe mental health issues and actively monitor clinical treatment programs. They generally work at hospitals, mental health clinics, and private practices.
- Educational Psychologists: They work with students – children and adolescents – to improve their learning and development. They work with children with special educational needs, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and they also train school teachers in related matters.
- Health Psychologists: They help people with physical health issues by supporting their well-being, addressing their emotional needs, and promoting a healthier lifestyle. They may work directly with people with chronic health issues at hospitals, or conduct experiments at research centers.
Psychologists do not necessarily have to work in clinical settings, nor do they always have to communicate with people who have mental health issues. There are also non-clinical psychologists, such as:
- Consumer Psychologists: They study consumer behavior: how the mind influences people to buy products and services. As a field that combines business and psychology, these psychologists generally work in marketing, advertising, and business consultancies.
- Industrial and Organizational Psychologists: Also known as I/O psychologists, they study the way people behave in the workplace. They help to improve various aspects of the workplace, including boosting productivity, designing training programs, modifying the organizational structure, engaging and coaching existing employees, and recruiting new employees.
Forensic Psychologists: They study criminal behavior and the motives for committing a crime. They are involved in various parts of the criminal justice system – for example, they support offenders, provide evidence in court, and analyze crimes.
What Is a Psychiatrist?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat mild to severe mental health issues. Unlike psychologists and psychotherapists, psychiatrists typically don’t deliver talk therapies – a type of intervention that involves a lot of conversation. Instead, psychiatrists focus more on addressing the chemical imbalances in the client’s brain; as a result, their treatment involves medications. In fact, psychiatry is one of the medical subspecialties. It is thus essential for someone to be a qualified medical doctor before they begin to pursue specialist training in psychiatry. Simply put, the general path to becoming a psychiatrist would be starting from medical school to completing subspecialty training in psychiatry. Their long years of dedication to the field also grant them the right to prescribe and manage medications.
Since they are trained as doctors, the way they treat mental health issues is more medical and physical—whereas psychologists and psychotherapists focus more on non-medical interventions. With their vast knowledge of medications, it’s common for psychiatrists to partner with psychologists, especially when treating clients with more severe mental health issues. Although psychiatrists are less likely to do talk therapies, they can diagnose the clients – with the DSM – and, if necessary, refer them to either a psychologist or a psychotherapist, depending on which one better suits their needs.
What Is a Psychotherapist?
Psychotherapists specialize in non-medical approaches. It is an umbrella term that refers to mental health professionals who have received training to deliver talk therapies. Psychotherapists typically work with people with mild to moderate mental health issues. They can provide mental health services in group settings – for instance, couple and family therapies. Their treatment focuses on establishing rapport with their clients, and explores how their past experiences might have contributed to their presenting issues. Psychotherapists can help the clients to learn more about the root causes of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Unlike psychiatrists, they teach their clients ways to deal with mental health issues non-medically. Psychotherapists also use different materials, depending on which modalities they are trained to use. With the appropriate tools, they can help facilitate one’s recovery process.
While a postgraduate degree is usually required, a doctorate degree, however, is not necessary for someone to become a psychotherapist. For this reason, they are less likely to diagnose mental health issues as extensively as psychologists and psychiatrists do, unless they have received further training. If a psychotherapist finds out that their own approaches might not be suitable for their clients, they will refer them to a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Here are some common types of psychotherapists:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Therapists: They help to improve mental health by identifying and changing one’s negative thought patterns. With tools such as mood diaries, worksheets, and assessments, CBT therapists can help clients to cultivate positive thinking.
- Psychoanalytic Therapists: Developed based on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, these therapists explore how our unconscious mind can affect the way we think, feel, and behave. Common techniques include dream interpretation, free association, and transference.
Art Therapists: Also known as "visual art therapists," they use different art forms to support clients who are going through mental health challenges. They usually guide the clients to express their feelings through painting, coloring, and sculpting.
The Relationship Between a Psychologist, a Psychiatrist, and a Psychotherapist
If you’re still confused about the three Ps, have a look at the graph below. It can not only help you understand more about how these three seemingly similar professions differ from each other, but it can also allow you to learn about how they interact:
Generally, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, but the others are not. Psychologists can be either clinical or not clinical, meaning that not all psychologists have to work directly in the mental health field. Psychotherapists, on the other hand, take a more relational approach. Clients working with them may expect to be involved in more talk therapies, and speak about themselves more. Usually, psychologists and psychiatrists who work in mental health can also be psychotherapists, as long as they have received the training. A psychotherapist, however, is less likely to also be a psychologist or a psychiatrist, since the training needed for someone to become one of these two professions takes much longer. Nonetheless, the three Ps all serve the same purpose: to improve mental health. When someone needs mental health support, be it yourself or your loved ones, the key for us is to find the most suitable expert and receive the most appropriate treatment. So how can we decide which one of them is the right one?
Psychologist, Psychiatrist, and Psychotherapist: Which One is Right for You?
In most cases, people can’t directly reach out to a psychiatrist, since a referral from other mental health professionals – such as psychologists, psychotherapists, or even counselors – is typically required. But if you or anyone you know might want to (or is planning to) seek help from the three Ps, below are a few tips to consider:
- Levels of Severity: Psychiatrists typically work with people with more serious mental health issues. These are usually challenges that are less likely to be addressed solely through talk therapies. If you, or your loved ones, are seriously affected by such issues, seeking help from a psychiatrist might be more suitable. But if the issue is mild or moderate, a psychologist or a psychotherapist may be more appropriate – as talk therapies may already be helpful enough.
- Do Your Research: Think twice before reaching out to any mental health professionals. And if you or someone you know is thinking of seeking help from a mental health professional, remember to consider the individual you choose carefully —ensure that they are a qualified professional, as well as someone that you feel that you feel comfortable with. Psychiatrists are doctors, so people should expect to be prescribed medication when they see them. These medications contain side effects that can cause harm to our bodily systems. Always do your research and know the risks beforehand.
- Your Commitment: Regardless of which one of the three Ps you may want to find or work with, stay committed to the process. Depending on the mental health issues, these treatments will likely require your time, cost, and dedication. To get the best results, it’s better to persist throughout treatment. And as your mental health improves, your efforts will almost certainly pay off.
Finding the right mental health professional is vital. People should expect to get a diagnosis from them, especially if they are seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist. It’s important to note that diagnosis can hugely impact how one will be treated – for instance, it will influence the treatment plans or the types of medication. For this reason, getting an inaccurate or even a wrong diagnosis can lead to harmful results. In some instances, clients also have a risk of internationalizing the psychiatric label, which tends to remain over their lives. That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek mental health support when neededーbut simply that it is highly important to think carefully when choosing who to walk along with you on your recovery journey.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) Overview; Clinical Psychology - American Psychological Association; What Is Educational Psychology?; Pursuing a Career in Health Psychology - American Psychological Association; Consumer Behavior - Psychology Today; Industrial and Organizational Psychology - American Psychological Association; Forensic Psychologist; What is Psychiatry? American Psychiatric Association; Psychiatry - NHS; What Is a Psychotherapist?; Psychiatrist? Psychotherapist? A Who's Who in Mental Health; What Is Couples Therapy?; Family Therapy: Theory and Practice; Psychoanalytic Therapy; Psychoanalytic Theory - ScienceDirect; What Is Art Therapy?; When Patients Should Be Seen by a Psychiatrist; What Is a Psychotropic Drug?
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