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What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Medicine, Psychology

Psychologists and psychiatrists are two of the key experts in mental health care. Both psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to provide treatments for mental health problems, however, the type of treatments they deliver and diagnose methods they use are very different.

Training pathways – the difference for psychologists and psychiatrists

The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) highlights the differences in the training pathway between a psychologist and a psychiatrist:

•   Psychologist

  1. Completing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science (or a Bachelor of Psychology) at a university with Honours in psychology, which generally includes substantial practical experience in a clinic to help people with everyday problems such as stress and relationship difficulties.
  2. Completing a clinical Masters or a Doctorate to become clinical psychologists in which they have additional experience in a hospital or community mental health service environment and enables them to specialise in treating people with a mental illness.
  3. Total training generally takes six to eight years, during which they will receive extensive training in psychotherapy and research methodology

•   Psychiatrist

  1. Completing a medical degree at university which covers human anatomy, biochemistry and physiology, function of the body’s organs, including the central nervous system and the effects of all drugs
  2. Undertaking specialist training in psychiatry focusing on psychiatric and psychological treatments and social and other health impacts in addition to their biological knowledge
  3. Total medical training generally takes a minimum of twelve years

Click here to go to our Become a Psychiatrist pathway page.

Approaches to diagnosing and treating disorders – different for psychologists and psychiatrists

According to the RANZCP, the different training methods received by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists mean different approaches to diagnosing and treating disorders. Some psychologists may not have trained in a hospital environment and should refer a patient to a psychiatrist, while a psychiatrist may refer the person back to a psychologist for ongoing psychotherapeutic treatment or work together with the psychologist to provide a broader range of treatment. Psychiatrists use their broader biological-psychological-social knowledge effectively with patients at the more severe end of mental illness and especially those in hospital environments.

The RANZCP also states that as a qualified medical doctor who has obtained additional qualifications to practise in the specialty of psychiatry, a psychiatrist’s practice involves a combination of:

  • Listening to and talking with patients, their families and others,
  • Providing specialist care for patients admitted to hospital for treatment or recovery,
  • Undertaking and coordinating specialist mental health treatment,
  • Prescribing medications or medical interventions when required
  • Liaising with a general medical practitioner or other medical specialist in cases where a person’s mental health problems may be caused by and underlying medical condition or physical health problem
  • Conducting research and teaching,
  • Advocating for individual patients as well as improved mental health services more
  • Providing expert opinion to the community on a range of mental health issues, and
  • Leading mental health services.

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