Mental health is a key component of our overall health and well-being. At the same time, research shows that it is one of the most pressing health-related issues we face today (World Health Organisation, 2013). The Australian Government website, HealthDirect, suggests that one in every five Australians experience a mental health condition in any given year (2022).
This means that many of us, at some point in our lives have sought, or will seek, professional support and advice to help us manage our mental health concerns. The starting point on this journey is often to determine which mental health professional can provide the most appropriate support for our situation. Psychologists and psychiatrists are at the forefront of mental health care services. However many of us may not be clear about the support these trained professionals offer. We may ask: What’s the difference between a psychologist vs psychiatrist?
The discussion considers this question. It begins with a brief, general summary of the scope of mental health conditions, including current approaches to management and treatment. It then focuses on the professionals who offer treatment and support services. It outlines the education, qualifications and treatment focus of psychology and psychiatry, thereby addressing the question of the key differences between them.
The article is intended to provide general information not advice.
What are we talking about?
Mental Health Conditions
Poor mental health encompasses a wide range of conditions that can affect our moods, thoughts and behaviour. These conditions include mood disorders such as depression and bi-polar disorder; anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias; and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and delusional disorder. If we are experiencing these types of problems we may have difficulty coping with work, relationships and daily life demands.
Mental disorders can range from mild, lasting only a few weeks, through to severe life-long illnesses.
While the exact cause of many conditions has not been fully identified, research suggests that they result from a combination of biological, psychological, and/or environmental factors. These can include genetics, the way your brain works, life experience such as your upbringing, your culture and your social environment (WebMD, 2022).
Treatment and support
A range of treatment options and support pathways are available to facilitate management of the many different conditions. The main types of treatment include:
- Psychotherapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Psychotherapy is also referred to as talk therapy. Psychotherapy aims to help someone change their thinking patterns and improve their coping skills, It is used to treat mental health conditions and also to help anyone wanting to change unhelpful thoughts or behaviour. Psychotherapy is also referred to as talk therapy.
- Medication such as anti-depressants, mood stabilisers and antipsychotic medicines
- Lifestyle changes including diet, exercise, relaxation and social contact
- Complementary therapies such as meditation, tai chi and music therapy
Support and treatment is tailored to the particular condition and varies according to the individual and their needs. Treatment may involve more than one of these options.
Psychologists and psychiatrists both offer this support and treatment. However while there are some similarities in the conditions they treat and in the strategies they use, there are also differences.
Psychologists and psychiatrists
Some people may think that psychology and psychiatry are within the same discipline. However, while there is some overlap between these professions, there are also clear differences in education, qualifications, focus and practices.
The Australian Psychological Society defines psychology as the science of human behaviour (2022). Psychologists study psychological theories that relate to understanding, managing and changing human behaviour. They explore how psychological, social and personality factors influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. They are skilled at assessing, diagnosing and treating behavioral dysfunctions and psychological issues that can disrupt life and lead to problems such as stress, coping issues and addiction.
Psychologists offer behavioral interventions, using a variety of therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (talk therapy). They talk with clients about problems in a way the makes the client feel supported and heard. This helps them to better understand what they are experiencing and to change some of their less helpful thoughts and behaviours. Psychologists may also teach coping skills like mindfulness that help us to manage our emotions and reactions. As they do not have a medical degree, prescribing medication is not part of their practice.
Psychologists work both with people who have a diagnosed disorder and also with individuals seeking support to enable them function better and manage the challenges in their lives. They provide guidance and support while teaching coping skills to people experiencing issues ranging from learning difficulties to relationship breakdowns to grief.
Psychologists are found in a range of healthcare, educational and community settings such as such hospitals, community health services, courts, prisons, businesses and private practices.
Psychologists must be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA) which is part of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). To be eligible for registration a psychologist must complete at least six years of study and supervised practice. This includes a four year undergraduate degree in psychology or behavioral science followed by two years of supervised post-graduate training. Many psychologists have also completed a masters and/or doctoral degree.
Psychologists attend ongoing training and education to ensure their skills and knowledge remain relevant
Some psychologists choose to specialise in a particular area of practice. This involves an additional period of study, supervised training and practical experience.
Clinical psychology is one such specialisation. Others include forensic psychology, educational psychology and organisational psychology.
Clinical psychologists have the same foundation of training as a general psychologist. In addition they are required to complete two years if postgraduate education and participate in a registrar program overseen by the Australian Clinical Psychology Association (ACPA) .
The scope of practice for a clinical psychologist may be more focused than that of a general psychologist. Their training develops the skills to identify, diagnose and treat mild to severe conditions and they often work with individuals suffering from mental disorders. They develop treatment plans and support options to meet the specific needs of each person. However, since they do not have a medical degree, they do not prescribe medication. This is the responsibility of a medical doctor or a psychiatrist.
A clinical psychologist may work in both public mental health care services and private practice. They may also work in other settings performing research, teaching university courses, providing supervision, and offering consultation services in areas such as public policy.
Clinical psychologists regularly attend ongoing training and education to ensure their skills and knowledge remain relevant.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have taken extra specialty training in mental health. They study the causes, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions. They are trained to understand the interaction between the psychological, social and biological factors that comprise an individual’s well-being. Their medical knowledge enables them to incorporate an individual’s medical history, including relevant family history, into their diagnoses, and to assess whether physical health conditions are contributing to a person’s mental state.
Psychiatrists treat mental illness, emotional issues and abnormal behaviour ranging from short-lived, mild conditions to severe, persistent and life threatening illnesses. They use a range of counselling and therapies, either themselves or by referring to a psychologist to help individuals to manage symptoms and issues.
In addition, their medical qualification allows them to prescribe medications and arrange for hospital admission if required.
Psychiatrists work in settings such as community mental health services, hospitals, and clinics as well as in private practice.
It is a requirement for Australia psychiatrists to be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). They may also be accredited by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP).
To be eligible for registration with AHPRA, psychiatrists must complete a degree in medicine, a medical internship and a medical residency. They then complete a four-year psychiatric residency where they learn about diagnosis and treatment of the different psychological conditions. Psychiatrists undergo extensive psychotherapy training, including cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
After completing this training, psychiatrists also have the option to choose a sub-specialization, such as psychopharmacology, neuropsychiatry, or forensic psychiatry.
Psychiatrists attend ongoing training and education to ensure their skills and knowledge remain relevant.
Psychologists and psychiatrists.
There are a number of similarities between psychologists and psychiatrists. Both are trained to understand how our brain works – how we think and how we behave. Both professionals offer support and treatment to individuals experiencing mental health challenges. Both use a range of therapies and counselling to help individuals manage mental health problems.
However, as this discussion has highlighted, there are also differences between the professions.
Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that focuses on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. Psychiatrists are therefore specialist doctors whose training includes developing an understanding of the role biology and physical health conditions can play in a person’s mental health. They are trained to utilise a combination of medication, psychotherapy and other treatments to help individuals manage their problems. They treat a range of mental illnesses including severe conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression. As a medical doctors, psychiatrists can prescribe medication. This is a key difference between psychiatrists and psychologists. Treatment plans developed by psychiatrists will often incorporate medication management as a strategy.
Psychologists are not medical doctors. They study human behaviour, focussing on understanding how people think, feel, behave and learn. Psychologists are trained to explore the interaction between behaviours, thoughts, memories and emotions. They focus on treating people with conditions that can be helped with psychotherapy. Examples include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, severe anxiety, and also depression. A psychologist is not a medical doctor and does not prescribe medication.
Each profession meets particular, sometimes overlapping needs. They also complement each other and work together where appropriate.
For example, a person may go to a psychologist who will evaluate, assess and diagnose their specific state and may then refer them to a psychiatrist if they deem this necessary. Alternatively, a psychiatrist may make an initial diagnosis, and then refer the individual to a psychologist for therapy sessions.
When considering the most appropriate mental health professional, it is important not to think along the lines of psychologist vs psychiatrist. They are not in competition.
As this discussion has noted, while they vary in education and expertise, both psychiatrists and psychologists are trained to understand the workings of our brain and to use counseling and therapy sessions to provide treatment and support for a wide range of mental health issues.
While each profession treats a range of sometimes overlapping issues, they complement each other and collaborate where appropriate.
Choosing a mental health professional
The article is intended to provide general information not advice. For more detailed information and advice, visit a site such as the Australian government’s HealthDirect website.
Australian Psychological Society, (2022), About Psychology, https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/about-psychology
Australian Psychological Society, (2022), Studying Psychology, https://psychology.org.au/training-and-careers/careers-and-studying-psychology/studying-psychology
Counselling in Melbourne (2022), Feel your Best, Mentally, https://www.counsellinginmelbourne.com.au/
HealthDirect (2022), Mental Health https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/mental-illness
WebMD (2022), Causes of Mental Illness, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-causes-mental-illness
World Health Organisation, https://www.who.int/health-topics/mental-health#tab=tab_1