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The difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist

If you have mental health concerns, it is important that you seek help. Knowing whether to see a psychologist or psychiatrist can be tricky, as there are many similarities between the two. However, there are also many differences, so it is important that you know the difference so that you can find a professional who you feel comfortable talking to who can help you.

While both a psychologist and a psychiatrist specialise in the brain, feelings, emotions and thoughts; the primary difference between them is the education requirements, training, and thus practice and salary.

What is a Psychologist?

A psychologist starts their career by studying psychology. Some psychologists pick up extra courses during the time that they study so that they can specialize in a certain field of psychology, type of assessment or therapy.  A Psychologist essentially studies the way that people think, interact and behave.  Focussing on how the mind works, everyday functioning and human behaviour as well as more complicated mental health conditions. Issues that a psychologist may be qualified to deal with include trauma, relationship issues and bereavement.

What is a Psychiatrist?

In order to become a psychiatrist, one needs to study medicine. After obtaining a medical degree, one then needs to study further to specialize in psychiatry. There are multiple different fields of psychiatry such as child psychiatry, forensic psychiatry or general psychiatry that one can specialize in. The term psychiatry refers to the study of mental disorders, including diagnosis, management and prevention.

Psychiatry is based on researching and observing mental conditions on which diagnosis is based. While psychiatrists can work with patients of any age, they generally work with people who have more severe mental conditions and those who require medical intervention to assist with normal daily functioning. Because of their medical training, a psychiatrist is authorised to perform medical examinations and to prescribe medication.

How do you know who to consult?

Although a psychologist and psychiatrist practice two different fields, they often work in conjunction with each other to treat patients. A psychologist, for example, may not write prescriptions, so in cases where it is suspected that a patient needs medication he or she may recommend that they visit a psychiatrist. Similarly, a psychiatrist may refer a patient to a psychologist to receive mental health therapy or counselling. While a psychologist focuses on a patient’s general mental health including their thoughts and feelings, a psychiatrist focuses on mental disorders and chemical imbalances.

It is recommended that when deciding which specialist to see,  one should be guided by the issue that one is facing. Someone who is clinically depressed or suffers from bipolar for example would benefit from taking medication and should, therefore, see a psychiatrist. While someone who is suffering from a phobia or trauma, for example, would benefit from seeing a psychologist. If you have any doubts about whom you should consult, a general family doctor could help you to decide and recommend a suitable psychologist or psychiatrist for your case.

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