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They’re both similar looking and sounding words and both disciplines treat people with mental health issues, so many people don’t realise they’re actually quite different. Here we will explore how both can help and guide you as to what might be the best fit for you.

In this article we will cover:

  • main differences between these types of practitioner
  • how you choose between these types of practitioner
  • how they compare when treating anxiety, depression or prescribing medicine


What is a Psychiatrist?

Put very simply, a psychiatrist is a medically trained Doctor who has specialised in the field of Psychiatry. They focus on the diagnosis of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders and will include a physical examination and take a history of your symptoms in their assessment. Based on this, they are able to prescribe medication that will treat your symptoms and lead to an improvement in your mental well being. 

What is a Psychologist?

A Clinical Psychologist or Counselling Psychologist, is a Doctorate whose focus is on the emotional and behavioural aspects of the mental health condition. A psychologist is less focused on labels/diagnosis and instead takes a history of an individuals life events and emotional difficulties to arrive at a formulation (understanding) of what is causing someone’s emotional distress or behaviour patterns. They then identify a treatment plan using an evidence based psychological approach, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

What Are the Main Differences Between Psychiatrists & Psychologists?

  • Psychiatrists are doctors who have been medically trained to deal with medical aspects of critical mental health conditions. Psychiatry is more concerned with a diagnosis which they use to prescribe the best medicines to treat the illness. Psychology is less concerned with labels and and instead uses an individual’s history and symptoms to make a formulation of what is causing someone’s distress, they then design a treatment plan using an evidence-based psychological approach.
  • A psychologist is a doctorate by virtue of their Ph.D. level qualification, but is not medically trained and cannot prescribe medication. This is not to say psychology is less effective; all psychological therapies are evidence based and this is often a better fit for people with more emotional difficulties.

Should I Choose a Psychologist or Psychiatrist?

Both can be affective methods of treating mental health issues and which is used is often down to personal preference.

A psychiatric approach may be better for those who prefer to…

  • name what is going on/their illness
  • take medicine to help combat the negative effects
  • not talk too deeply about their issues
  • have more complex conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
  • are having serious thoughts about wanting to harm themselves or others
  • do not have the capacity to consent to treatment (or an assessment is needed to establish capacity)

While psychology tends to suit those who…

  • prefer not to take medicine
  • find labelling their issues unhelpful
  • want to talk through how they’re feeling to make sense of it
  • want to find ways to overcome their difficulties themselves
  • have more behavioural problems that are causing difficulties for themselves or those around them
  • have experienced trauma that is having an impact on their relationships 

Can I see a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist at the same time?

There may be instances when both approaches are helpful and it is common for a both disciplines to work together with a patient.

They often work in tandem to treat more deeply entrenched/complex issues and together can offer a more comprehensive approach. This can help if you are struggling to manage your symptoms and they are impacting on your ability to function in day to day life: a psychiatrist would prescribe medication to help with symptom management, which then enables you to work more effectively with the psychologist on the root causes of your difficulties. Some neurodevelopment disorders such as Autism and ADHD also recommend a multi disciplinary approach for diagnosis.

The Differences in Education and Training

  • Both disciplines take different educational routes: psychology focuses on the study of the mind and how this can impact emotions, whereas psychiatry is more focused on the medical causes of mental health conditions, however it is mandatory for both to be registered with professional bodies in order to practice and they must follow the guidelines set out by these bodies. 
  • Psychiatrists come with medical degrees and will have advanced qualifications that come from specialising in mental illness. They will use talking therapy and medications to treat patients. For more severe mental illness they may use other treatments, such as Electrical Conclusive Treatment (ECT), although this is rare and will always be done as an inpatient and under very controlled conditions.

  • Psychologists have a Ph.D., a psychology degree and special training in the diagnosis and treatment of neurodevelopment conditions. They use their understanding of the mind and how this can impact on behaviours and emotions to identify the right type of talking therapy to treat mental health conditions. 
  • They can both  work in a number of settings, this includes: primary care, private practices, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, hospitals, rehabilitation programs, hospice programs and prisons.

Differences in treating Depression

It is common for both disciplines to treat depression and it may come down to personal preference as to which pathway you choose. Where you may be experiencing more physical symptoms, especially severe ones, such as struggling to take basic care of yourself, we would generally suggest a consultation with a psychiatrist initially, as this will help to clarify a diagnosis. In these circumstances medication can often be helpful in treating the most severe symptoms. However, if you are experiencing more emotional distress and would like to get to the root cause and find more effective ways of dealing with your symptoms a psychological route may be better for you.

Differences in treating Anxiety

Anxiety can be treated using either: a psychological approach can be very effective with CBT being the most widely recommended, as well as behavioural activation techniques. On the other hand, psychiatrists will use bio-psychosocial model of assessment and focus on the biological aspects of psychiatric illnesses. They will also use medications to help treat depressive symptoms. They may also use talk therapy and cognitive or behavioural approaches, alongside medication.

Can Psychologists prescribe medicine for Psychiatric conditions?

No, if you think that you need medication you will need to see a GP or Psychiatrist. You can do this privately or you can go to see your NHS GP who will either prescribe or for more serious cases refer you to your local mental health team for further assessment

Further information from the British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatrists


What makes a Psychologist? – British Psychological Society

What is Psychiatry? – Royal College of Psychiatrists

When Should I Seek Mental Health Support?

If you are experiencing emotional or behavioural difficulties that are negatively impacting on your day to day life, it is time to seek help. It may be helpful to keep a diary of your thoughts and activity (such as diet and sleep) for a few weeks so you can get a picture of any changes that may be occurring. Family and friends may also notice changes in your mood, such as being more irritable, or isolating yourself.

While it can feel frightening it is important that you are assessed by a professional who can guide you to the right treatments.

How Should I Book an Appointment with Select Psychology?

If you are not sure which approach would be better for you and you would like to know more click here. You can speak confidentially to our expert triage team who will be able to answer your questions and guide you in the right direction.

Our focus is psychology, however if it seems that an appointment with a psychiatrist would be better for you, you can be rest assured that we work in partnership with both child and adult services and would be happy to recommend someone.