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You Asked: What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Explore the similarities and differences between these two types of mental health professionals
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist - an image of various brain scans

It is important to find a mental health care provider that is right for you. Particularly if you have, or think you have, a mental health disorder—or simply need help managing stress. A licensed psychologist and psychiatrist from the Texas A&M College of Medicine sat down to discuss the different types of mental health professionals available and explained what to do if you are ready to seek mental health care. 

What type of mental health help do I need?

Mental health includes our physical, emotional, psychological and social well-being. Those three components delicately play with each other to form who you are as a person. Sometimes something happens that impacts you, and you may need professional help to manage your mental health.

“People seeking help with their mental health need to work together with their health care providers to form a plan,” said Meredith Williamson, PhD, a clinical assistant professor and licensed psychologist at the Texas A&M Family Medicine Residency Program at the college. “Finding the right type of treatment and even therapist takes time.”

Improving mental health can require a balance between therapy and medication. However, not all seeking help with their mental health need medication.

“A person’s mental health plan may not look like their friend’s plan for treatment, even if they have the same diagnosis,” said Darlene McLaughlin, MD, clinical psychiatrist, clinical assistant professor with the College of Medicine. “Some people need more therapy than others, or even a different type of therapy all together. Some people need a higher dose of medication, and some people need no medication. Mental health care is not one-size-fits-all.”

A team of mental health care providers should carefully construct your mental health care plan. They will carefully observe how your symptoms respond to treatments and making adjustments along the way. Everyone, from your pharmacist to your nurse, should be involved in your care. Everyone seeking help to understand the various mental health professionals available to help. 

How can my primary care doctor help with my mental health?

McLaughlin said a patient’s primary care provider is an important mental health resource. “A patient often looks to one primary care provider to be their guide in terms of seeking other or more specialized care. This thought process is the idea of a medical home.”

For this reason, she advises anyone seeking non-emergency help with their mental health to first speak with their primary care provider. However, if it is an acute emergency such as potential suicide, overly aggressive behavior or an overdose, then more immediate care needs to happen, such as seeking emergency or urgent care.

“Depending on the needs of the patient and the community’s resources, primary care providers can prescribe required medications,” Williamson said. “However, they may refer their patients out for assistance with medication management or for psychotherapy.”

For people in rural communities or without easy access to mental health care, telehealth can be an option. For example, the Texas A&M Telehealth Counseling Clinic offers free counseling services to patients who have difficulty accessing mental health counseling services.

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor—with a MD or DO—who specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.

Because psychiatrists attend medical school to be trained in general medicine, they can assess mental health needs with other physical needs and diagnoses. They often treat mental health disorders that require medication as part of an intervention, even though they are trained in psychotherapy and other behavioral interventions,

“Psychiatrists often work in conjunction with psychologists and other therapists,” McLaughlin said. “When a patient needs psychotherapy in addition to medication, psychiatrists can conduct psychotherapy themselves or refer the patient to another mental health specialist. This decision depends completely on the psychiatrist’s expertise and comfort level with the required therapy.”

What is a psychologist?

“Much like a psychiatrist, psychologists are qualified to diagnose mental health conditions,” Williamson said. “However, psychologists and a psychiatrists differ in how they are trained and treat patients. Depending on the type of treatment and therapy a patient needs, they may even want to go to a psychologist in addition to a psychiatrist.”

Psychologists do not attend medical school. Instead, they obtain a PhD in addition to countless hours of training in psychotherapy, clinical internships and postdoctoral fellowships. Their schooling trains them in personality development and psychological problems.

Psychologists do not prescribe medications, unless they have additional training. For this reason, they focus and specialize in psychotherapy treatment and treating the emotional and mental suffering with behavioral intervention. However, they can work hand in hand with primary care physicians or psychiatrists who can prescribe medications when working within an integrated care models, such as the one practiced at Texas A&M Family Medicine Residency.

What is social work? What is a licensed professional counselor?

A social worker focuses on the person and their environment in a holistic approach to mental health. They can help patients with how they feel mentally, but also show how they can improve their situations. Licensed social workers with a Master of Social Work degree, or MSW, have training in psychotherapy. They can use therapy to address certain issues like alcohol abuse, eating disorders and depression.

A licensed professional counselor (LPC) can provide counseling or psychotherapy to individuals, families or groups. Counselors earn a master’s degree in counseling and license after countless hours training in psychotherapy. The American Counseling Association says counselors’ education and training is oriented toward the adoption of a truly client-centered, and not primarily illness-centered, approach to therapy.

Which mental health professional is right for me?

“The match between the patient and the therapist, whether psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor or social worker, is important,” McLaughlin said. “There has to be a match between the needs of the patient and the training and skill set of the provider. In addition, the patient-provider relationship is of primary importance for the effectiveness of therapy, regardless of the training or credentials of the therapist.

Similarly, Williamson reminds everyone that psychotherapy is not only for people with a diagnosable disorder. “Sometimes it can simply help people cope with life events, like the death of a loved one,” she said. “Also, remember to keep your primary care provider in the loop about your treatments and medications. They need to know so they can continue to provide you with the best well-rounded care.”

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