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Psychologists vs Psychiatrists: What IS the Difference?

What is the difference between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

This is a question I am frequently asked. There are many overlaps and similarities between the two professions, primarily both are concerned with the assessment and treatment of people with mental health problems. However, there are also some specific differences that I will outline below.

Training

One significant difference is the training that is required in order to be a Clinical Psychologist and a Psychiatrist. Clinical Psychologists first complete an undergraduate degree in Psychology, typically taking three years to complete. They then normally gain between one and five years of relevant working experience after their undergraduate degree, perhaps as an Assistant Psychologist in a hospital or mental health team, or as a Research Psychologist at a University. It is not uncommon for a Clinical Psychologist to have completed a Masters Degree or a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) following their undergraduate degree. All Psychologists must then complete a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology in order to become qualified as a Clinical Psychologist. The doctorate degree is a three year programme, during which the Trainee Clinical Psychologist carries out between 5 and 6 placements where they work in mental health teams or hospitals with children, adults and older adults with a broad range of emotional difficulties. They often specialise in the final year of their doctorate degree, developing specialist skills with a particular client group or in a specific mode of therapy.

Psychiatrists, however, have an initial degree in Medicine, which usually takes 5 years. They then carry out their 2 year foundation training in a hospital, often treating physical health conditions. Following this initial medical training, they then begin their specialist training in psychiatry, beginning with three years ‘core training’ working with clients across the age ranges and across a variety of clinical areas, followed by a further three years of ‘high training’, which normally involves three 12 month placements in the speciality chosen by the Trainee Psychiatrist.

Assessment

A further difference is in how Psychiatrists and Clinical Psychologists typically assess the difficulties that a person is suffering with. Both professionals will probably carry out a detailed assessment with the client involving taking a history of their mental health problems and also asking the client to complete a standardised questionnaire to measure their mood, anxiety or other mental health symptoms. During this process of assessment, Psychiatrists are typically trying to identify the diagnosis that would be applicable to the client, thus are focussing on the type of symptoms that the client presents with. Clinical Psychologists, however, do not normally diagnose clients. Instead they develop a psychological formulation of the client which makes sense of how the client’s difficulties developed and the psychological processes that are likely to be keeping the problem going.

Treatment

Based on the assessment process, Psychiatrists and Clinical Psychologists may treat the client in different ways. Following clinical diagnosis, psychiatrists can prescribe medication to the client, e.g anti-depressants. Depending on their specialist training, they may also provide psychological therapy. Clinical Psychologists do not prescribe medication. Instead, they use their psychological formulation of the client’s difficulties to guide their psychological intervention. Clinical Psychologists carry out evidence based psychological therapies, working towards the goal/s that the client has identified. Clinical Psychologists typically specialise in one or two main therapies, for example Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

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This summary is not a comprehensive list but aims to set out the main key differences between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist. In reality there is a lot of overlap between the two professions, which is probably why a lot of people get confused about whether they are actually just the same thing!

Although I have been general in my comparisons, of course every Clinical Psychologist will differ in terms of style and experience, as will every Psychiatrtist. In choosing the right professional for you, I would always recommend having a conversation with them first by phone or email, or at least having a good look at their website. You could ask them about the type of therapy that they use and how they might go about helping you with your specific difficulties. It is a good idea to check that they are fully qualified and accredited in the therapy that they use. It is also important that you feel comfortable in talking to the professional and feel that they understand you. I often recommend that people speak to 2 or 3 professionals before choosing the right one for them.

I am more than happy to speak to people on the phone prior to arranging the first appointment. If you would feel more comfortable talking via e-mail, then this is also absoultely fine. For information about my experience, qualifications and accreditation, and the therapy that I use, please see the About and Therapy sections of this website.

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