What Does A Psychologist Do In Comparison To A Psychiatrist?

Updated April 11, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team

Some people hear the words "psychologist" and "psychiatrist" and think they are the same, just with alternative spellings. Both are important medical professionals who treat mental health issues – they just may go about it in slightly different ways. 

If you’re interested in learning about the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists – especially regarding which professional you should consult if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness – continue reading. We’ll share each professional’s area of expertise and provide you with resources for obtaining online mental health support.

What is a psychologist?

Psychiatrists and psychologists use different treatment methods

A psychologist helps diagnose and treat those who are living with mental disorders (as well as their caregivers, in many circumstances). A person may go to a psychologist for reasons outside of relief from the symptoms of mental disorders, however. Someone may see a psychologist because of a situational issue, such as a major transition or disruption in their life (i.e., divorce, death, changing careers). 

A psychologist may employ different tests for those who show symptoms of mental disorders to learn more about the patient. The tests can help the psychologist map the patient's personality and make treatments based on their goals and needs. These tests are also useful for diagnosing abnormal psychology disorders.

Once the psychologist has diagnosed the patient's condition, they can use various methods to treat it. Psychologists are not as focused on medicine and are not allowed to prescribe medication; instead, they will likely focus on talk therapy. Forms of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help the person who is having trouble by changing how they think and approach different situations.

A psychologist is highly trained and has received years of education. They have an undergraduate degree and an additional four to six years of graduate and doctoral study. The mind, practice, and ethics involved in psychology take a long time to grasp. A psychologist will go through internships, take assessments, and do various other tasks before obtaining their license. A psychologist's education never ends, even after they have graduated. This is because psychology research is consistently leading psychologists to revise previous theories or approaches, which may have been inaccurate or incomplete.

cognitive psychologist may work with one person at a time, but they can also work as a group therapist. As mentioned above, they are not focused on medicinal treatments for mental health issues. If a patient needs medicine, a psychologist usually isn't the one who will prescribe it. They will work with other medical professionals in almost all states to prescribe the medicine to treat the patient.

A psychologist will work in various settings, including schools, hospitals, juvenile correction facilities, and nonprofit organizations. Finding a psychologist may be more or less difficult, depending on the access to mental healthcare in your area, though many options are available online. 

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is also employed to help those who are living with mental issues. These issues can be long-lasting or resulting from a sudden occurrence. A psychiatrist works in psychiatry, a field that treats, diagnoses, and prevents different mental disorders.

Like a psychologist, a psychiatrist spends years pursuing their education and internships. Then they get their license through a state exam. Once they get their license, they need to train for four years to become a full psychiatrist. Once they complete the training they need, many psychiatrists take an exam to be certified. They must retake the exam every few years to keep their certification. If they choose to specialize in a specific area, they may continue to train to become a child psychiatrist or addiction specialist.

So like a psychologist, they spend a lot of time training. Once they get their job, they can work in various locations such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, universities, nursing homes, and other places that require someone to treat a person who has mental health issues.

As a psychologist, a psychiatrist will help those struggling by using various tests to ensure a proper diagnosis. These usually come in the form of talking to the patient first to explain their symptoms. However, talking to the patient alone usually isn't enough for a proper diagnosis. A good psychiatrist will look at the patient's genetic history to see if there is a family history of mental illness. The diagnosed person will be treated once the psychiatrist is sure that they have the right diagnosis.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

A psychiatrist will rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM, to potentially learn what mental disorder the patient is experiencing. The DSM is currently in its fifth edition, and it allows the psychiatrist to diagnose a set of symptoms properly.

Psychiatrists will use a few different tools to treat the patient. One key difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist lies within the psychiatrist’s ability to prescribe medication or specific procedures – psychologists do not have the authority to carry out these directives. Psychiatrists have been specifically trained to understand the impacts and side effects of what they prescribe. They have additional knowledge of psychoactive medications that is beyond what a typical family doctor possesses. 

Psychiatrists may prescribe a variety of medicine. A psychiatrist can help treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder (BPD), and anxiety with antidepressants. Those who have hallucinations, schizophrenia, and similar disorders, may benefit from the use of antipsychotics. Hypnotics may be used to induce sleep. Psychiatrists may prescribe pills to help someone stabilize their mood. 

ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, is an example of a procedure that a psychiatrist is qualified to prescribe. There is a bit of a stereotype when it comes to treatment with ECT. One might imagine someone strapped down and having their brain electrocuted. While ECT does exist, it may not be what you equate it to from sensationalized images in the media. The brain is gently stimulated using electrical impulses and magnetic fields. This stimulates your brain, which can mitigate severe depression and other mental disorders that do not respond to medicine or talk therapy.

Just like a psychologist, a psychiatrist may use talk therapy in addition to medication to help the participant change negative thought patterns or adopt healthier coping skills. Sometimes, a combination of medication and psychotherapy is needed to get the best results but for those who are hesitant to take medication.

What does a psychologist do when compared to a psychiatrist?

As you can see, psychologists and psychiatrists share similar roles and approaches, but there are a few differences between them. They both treat mental disorders and can diagnose their patients. Both can talk to their patients and employ various ways of treating them. Here are a few key differences.

  • A psychiatrist is someone who works as a medical doctor, while a psychologist is not.
  • A psychologist cannot prescribe medicine to the clients. 
  • People generally see psychologists for less severe mental problems (i.e., mild depression or insomnia); those struggling with severe conditions may see a psychiatrist.
  • Generally, a referral is required to see a psychiatrist; meanwhile, someone can usually schedule time with a psychologist without a referral.
Psychiatrists and psychologists use different treatment methods

Seek support from an online psychologist

Now that you know the difference between the two professions, you can better decide whom you need to see. Whatever the choice is, it's a good thing to seek help as soon as you can, if you notice concerning or distressing symptoms in yourself or a loved one. Depression psychology affirms that even a minor condition may need treatment and that an occasional bout of depression can evolve into something worse if left untreated.

You might consider the advantages of booking counseling sessions with an online therapist. There are many places where you can find an online psychiatrist, and online counseling platforms like MyTherapist enable users to match with a licensed professional who is uniquely qualified to assist them in reaching their goals or overcoming their mental health challenges.

Why is online counseling appealing to so many people? It affords flexibility in scheduling appointments that participants may not often have access to via face-to-face therapy. Users can contact their therapist from any location with a secure internet connection. They can videoconference from a home office or text them in the middle of a challenging situation. Additionally, online psychologists are typically more affordable than in-person practitioners.

Many online therapists will utilize CBT to help patients reframe negative thought patterns, while an in-person or online psychiatrist can monitor the patient’s medication regimen. A recent literature review of studies evaluating the effectiveness of iCBT concluded that it was effective in treating various psychiatric disorders like depression, social anxiety, adjustment disorder, substance use disorders, and phobias. 


If you’re still not sure whether you should meet with a psychologist and/or a psychiatrist, that’s okay. You can always reach out to an online counselor at MyTherapist, who can listen to your situation and give you appropriate guidance. Good counselors will not take it personally if you decide that you need to take an alternative pathway – their primary goal is to help you or your loved ones live a healthy and fulfilling life. If you’re ready to add a compassionate, licensed psychologist to your support network, reach out to MyTherapist today.

For Additional Help & Support With Your ConcernsThis website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.