Mental health challenges can come out of left field and are very disruptive to our general wellbeing and quality of life. Thankfully, there are many mental health professionals who are trained to provide treatment and support when we hit a rough patch in life.
If you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health issue, you may wonder whether to consult a psychiatrist or a psychologist for professional assistance. There is often confusion around these two titles, so it can be helpful to understand the difference before making a decision of what specialist is right for you.
The difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists are required to complete medical school, pass the state licensure exam, and complete four years of residency in psychiatry. These medical professionals can prescribe psychotropic medications, as well as provide psychotherapy.
A psychologist is not a medical doctor, but typically has an advanced degree in clinical psychology with extensive training in clinical practice or research — sometimes both. A psychologist primarily provides psychotherapy through a variety of counseling techniques, but isn’t qualified to prescribe medications.
Benefits of a psychologist
A psychologist, also referred to as a psychotherapist, can help you navigate difficult emotional challenges, offering a supportive and compassionate ear and helpful techniques to assist you through the emotional distress. The benefits of working with a psychologist include:
- Psychologists are trained in a wide range of psychotherapies, which allows them to tailor a patient’s therapy. They determine what type of therapy a patient needs during the initial assessment and interview, along with the patient’s therapeutic goals. Many psychologists specialize in a particular modality of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT.
- Psychologists often take a holistic approach to treatment. Treatment involves talk therapy and also addresses a patient’s family dynamics, lifestyle habits, stress management and coping skills for a well-rounded approach.
- Psychologists base the duration of the therapeutic process on meeting certain benchmarks, versus engaging in ongoing, long-term therapy. In the majority of cases, patients work with a psychologist for a period of less than six months.
Benefits of a psychiatrist
When someone is in psychological distress, they may become so debilitated by the symptoms of the illness that they need an advanced level of care that’s beyond what a physician or psychologist can provide. The benefits of seeing a psychiatrist include:
- Psychiatrists possess a wide range of diagnostic tools to better determine a patient’s exact mental health needs. This variety of evaluation techniques can include medical lab tests, oral interviews and psychological assessments. Based on the results of the various diagnostic tools, the psychiatrist makes a diagnosis and creates a treatment plan.
- Psychiatrists are able to provide a complete treatment plan, with protocols based on the diagnosis and the unique features of each individual patient. Generally, treatment involves prescribing some form of medication, like antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, or anti-psychotics, to help minimize symptoms. Treatment can also include psychotherapy and adjunctive therapies.
- Psychiatrists can provide preventative mental health management by offering ongoing support for individuals in high-stress environments. These include careers such as police and fire personnel, medical and dental practitioners, personal care providers like home health nurses, and social workers.
Whether you seek the assistance of a psychologist or a psychiatrist, all personal and medical information is kept strictly confidential. This allows the patient-therapist relationship to be based upon openness and trust.
If you are experiencing a difficult moment in life, the professional services of a mental health practitioner are essential. Whether due to a mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or an difficult life event, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or a severe medical condition, enlisting the help of a psychiatrist or psychologist can be life-changing.
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