The general wisdom is that the only difference between psychologists and psychiatrists is that psychiatrists can prescribe medication and psychologists cannot. At their core, however, psychiatry and psychology stem from two separate philosophical approaches to life, the hands-on medicine approach, and the more theoretical scientific approach. The Greek root of the suffix “-iatry” roughly translates “medical treatment of” and the loose translation of “-logy” is the “science or theory of,” so literally psychiatry is the medical treatment of the psyche and psychology is the science of the psyche.
Much of the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists is in their academic background. Psychiatrists attend medical school, attain an MD, and then do four years of medical residency in mental health. Psychologists, on the other hand, complete five to seven years of academic study followed by a one- to two-year internship. Psychologists can earn either a Ph.D. or a PsyD. Generally, those interested in clinical psychology and treating patients pursue a PsyD, while Ph.D. candidates most often focus on research.
Both professions can treat most mental issues from anxiety and anorexia to dissociative identity and bipolar disorders as well as practice psychotherapy and do research. Since, with few exceptions, only psychiatrists can prescribe medicine, part of their duties include medication management, and often psychiatrists work with the more severe mental cases that require medication. However, many psychiatrists also practice psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, therefore not all of their patients are on medication.
As well as using psychoanalysis and psychodynamic approaches, psychologists more often tend to use personality and neuropsychological tests to evaluate their patients. Personality tests include issuing questionnaires to patients such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI), as well as tests such as the famed Rorschach test wherein the patient is shown a series of inkblots and asked to describe what they see. Neuropsychological tests evaluate brain function to diagnose or assess the extent of damage from an injury or illness. Both types of testing serve to guide the psychologist in their treatment plan.
Since psychiatry and psychology are so interconnected a few US states have begun to allow psychologists to write prescriptions. New Mexico began allowing psychologists to write prescriptions in 2002 and the state of Louisiana has recently ruled that psychologists can write prescriptions for mental health patients after conferring with a psychiatrist.
In the world of therapy where psychologists and psychiatrists dwell, there is a third type of therapist. Clinical Social Workers (CSWs) are mental health professionals who hold a master’s degree and attain licenses to practice psychotherapy after completing at least two years of clinical training.
While each type of mental health professional has a particular training and slightly different focus, each plays an important role in the world of mental health. When choosing a mental health provider, be sure to inquire about the therapist’s training, area of expertise, and experience.
If you are interested in counseling in the Irvine, Orange County, or Newport Beach area, please contact me at (949) 251-8797.