Judging by how often I’m asked this question, there is a lot of confusion out there about the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists. For a lot of people the two professions are synonymous.
There is overlap between the two roles, and both professions deal with a similar group of patients; we both work for the well being of patients who have problems concerning their mental health or behaviour (or both). There are however a large number of differences.
Firstly, psychologists and psychiatrists have different training. A psychiatrist goes to medical school and, in the UK , will have spent at least a year working in physical medicine. A psychologist starts their training with a psychology degree, going on to higher degrees and has no medical background.
This leads us to the really big difference: psychiatrists can prescribe medications for patients (as ever there are exceptions to this – nurses can take a prescribing course, but their remit would mostly be restricted to commonplace short term medication, for example night sedation) and psychologists do not. Psychiatrists therefore spend a lot of their time initiating and monitoring pharmaceutical treatments and assessing patients’ mental state in the light of this.
In contrast to the psychiatrists’ focus on medication as a treatment for mental illness, a psychologist’s approach focuses extensively on psychotherapy and treating emotional and mental suffering in patients with behavioral interventions. This might involve problem solving techniques or identifying and tackling dysfunctional behavioural patterns perhaps via psychological therapy such as CBT. Psychologists are also qualified to conduct psychological testing, which is important in assessing a person’s mental state and determining the most effective course of treatment.
One final difference is that psychiatrists are also involved in involuntarily detaining patients on psychiatric wards when it is felt that a patient is at risk to themselves and/or others and cannot be treated in the community; this is not part of psychologist’s remit.
So, as a simple example, let’s say that a person is referred to a mental health team because of severe anxiety. Their psychiatrist would consider prescribing them anti-anxiety medication. A psychologist will be more focused on behavioural intervention. This might involve CBT or, with a phobia, graded exposure.
People also mix up the role of psychiatrists and psychologists with that of psychotherapists/psychoanalysts. Again there is overlap between this profession and psychiatry – but it’s a story for another day.
Added 14 June 2008
Here’s what ‘Psychology: A Very Short Introduction’ has to say on the subject.
‘There are some fields with which psychology is frequently confused – and indeed there are good reasons for the confusion. First, psychology is not psychiatry. Psychiatry is a branch of medicine which specialises in helping people to overcome mental disorders. It therefore concentrates on what happens when things go wrong: on mental illness and mental distress. Psychologists also apply their skills in the clinic, but they are not medical doctors and combine with their focus on psychological problems and distress a wide knowledge of normal psychological processes and development. They are not usually able to prescribe drugs; rather they specialise in helping people to understand control or modify their thoughts or behaviour in order to reduce their suffering and distress’
Added 13 August 2008
And in 1980 under Mao psychology was condemned as being
‘90% useless’ and ‘10% distorted and bourgeois phoney science’
Source: Bond M.H. 1995 Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology
Via Affluenza by Oliver James page 128
Added 25 December 2008 (that’s right – nothing on television)
From Madness Explained Richard Bentall pp. 3 quoting Medicine balls Too pp. 78-9
‘Rob Buckman, doctor and humourist has characterised the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists in the following way: ‘According to psychologists, a psychologist is a scientist how has trained in various aspects of experiment psychology, neuropsychology, operant conditioning and interpersonal dynamics, whereas a psychiatrist is a doctor who couldn’t keep up the payments on his stethoscope. Psychiatrists on the other hand tend to view the schism in a more allegorical style. Thus according to a very senior psychiatrist, ‘neurotics are people who build castles in the air, psychotics are people who live in them, while psychiatrists are people who charge the rent, and psychologists are like men from the council who come round once in a blue moon, talk incomprehensible crap and do damn all”
Added 19 August 2009
Another viewpoint from Guide to Psychology