A guide to understanding psychologist vs psychiatrist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 17 April 2022

Mental health is more widely spoken about now than ever before. As people become more aware of their mental health and seek support, the demand for trained healthcare professionals continues to increase. Two popular fields of practice in the mental health area are psychology and psychiatry and for those considering a career in either field and for those seeking treatment, it's important to understand both roles. In this article, we discuss the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists and what the roles have in common.

Psychologist vs psychiatrist

The key difference between psychologists vs psychiatrists is the level of education and training required for both professions. In contrast, psychologists and psychiatrists both work with patients to treat mental and behavioural disorders. Here are the key differences and similarities between these two professionals:

Key differences

A psychologist is not a medical doctor but rather, has qualifications in psychology. To become a psychologist, it's required to have an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate conversion course, majoring in psychology and accredited by the Psychological Society of Ireland. Completion of a recognised postgraduate training programme in clinical psychology is then necessary.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specialises in psychiatry. To become a psychiatrist, you first qualify as a doctor, complete your internship and then train in psychiatry as a speciality. Becoming a qualified psychiatrist can take at least seven years or longer. As a psychiatrist is a practising doctor, they may prescribe medication to treat a variety of mental illnesses and behavioural disorders. In Ireland, unless also medically qualified, a psychologist does not prescribe medication.

Key similarities

Understanding the similarities between these two professionals is also key in working with patients. A lot of the work psychiatrists and psychologists do is quite similar and often, they may work together to treat the same patient using their individual skills and techniques. The psychiatrist might focus on the medication aspect of the treatment plan while talking therapy and other tools provided by the psychologist can reinforce this.

What does a psychologist do?

Psychologists help people overcome a variety of personal difficulties. By applying their knowledge of mental health and human behaviour, a psychologist can help a person tackle problems that are causing distress or are affecting their thoughts, feelings or behaviours. Psychologists usually work on a one-to-one basis with patients to help them identify what their problems are and to help them find practical ways to deal with these issues and bring about positive change in their lives. Trained in mental processes and behaviours, psychologists help people when they feel overwhelmed or that they can't cope.

Psychologists diagnose and treat mental and behavioural disorders, including learning difficulties. Psychologists use talking therapy and other tools to help patients learn how to overcome challenges. Often, a psychologist can help a patient face and overcome issues they have dealt with all their lives, such as trauma or addiction. Working with a psychologist can also help a patient overcome depression, anxiety or grief. During the course of one-to-one or group sessions, a psychologist makes observations and asks questions to help understand the issues the patient is facing.

Related: Careers in educational psychology (with salary and skills)

Psychologist skills

There are several skills that are useful to succeed as a psychologist. Some of the most important skills an effective psychologist might have include:

Clinical expertise

With their qualification, they can display a deep understanding of clinical theory and mental health. An effective psychologist keeps up to date with the latest industry trends and medical breakthroughs relevant to their field. Continual learning and ongoing clinical experience help cement a psychologist's overall expertise.

Interpersonal skills

Psychologists regularly work with people who are experiencing trauma or behavioural problems and the ability to treat the patient with empathy, understanding and respect is important. To effectively deal with patients that are experiencing feelings of isolation, depression or fear, an effective psychologist can offer genuine empathy and ease the patient's anxiety throughout treatment. A psychologist often deals with an array of challenging behaviour, so patience and the ability to remain calm are also excellent skills to have.

Communication skills

Part of the psychology process is effective communication. A skilled psychologist can ask the right questions and interpret the answers given to diagnose and treat the patient. Knowing how to communicate with a variety of patients with different needs is essential to becoming a psychologist.

Related: 7 psychology careers and what to expect from the field

Types of psychologist

There are several specialities within the field of psychology. Some of the most popular areas to specialise in include:

  • Clinical psychology: a clinical psychologist works as part of the mental health team at a hospital or other clinical setting, such as a health centre. Clinical psychologists work to provide a range of mental health services, including assessments and interventions for the psychological wellbeing of patients.

  • Community psychology: a community psychologist often works out in the community alongside other professionals such as social workers, speech therapists and community welfare officers. Community psychologists are often called upon to offer assessments of those with behavioural, educational and other difficulties.

  • Educational psychology: an educational psychologist often works in a school setting, providing services that offer support to learning and development. Educational psychologists often help children and young people overcome learning and behavioural problems.

  • Counselling psychology: a counselling psychologist helps patients improve their mental wellbeing and works to ease distress. Counselling psychologists provide therapeutic services across a broad range of settings, including schools, universities, private practices and even large workplaces.

What does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who, after gaining their medical degree, specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Psychiatrists diagnose mental health conditions and prescribe the necessary treatment. Psychiatrists can identify symptoms of mental and physical illness, can design treatment programmes and prescribe medication if necessary. Often, a psychiatrist deals with more extreme or complex cases than those dealt with by a psychologist. Some work directly with patients on a one-to-one basis, while others carry out research on behavioural disorders or the workings of the brain.

To help patients deal with their illness and try to lead normal, healthy lives, psychiatrists often use a combination of therapy and medication. Psychiatrists also work alongside fellow medical professionals, often liaising with other doctors to arrange tests that might rule out physical illness that might cause symptoms that appear to be a mental health issue. A psychiatrist monitors a patient's medication and checks for signs of improvement or side effects. Occasionally, a psychiatrist deals with diagnosis and medication and might refer the patient to a psychologist for a different kind of therapy.

Related: Communication skills you need to succeed

Psychiatrist skills

There are several skills necessary to become a competent psychiatrist. These include all the skills necessary to be an effective psychologist, listed above (clinical expertise, interpersonal skills and communication skills). In addition, some important skills for a successful psychiatrist include:

Leadership skills

When a patient is receiving treatment for a mental disorder by a team of different specialists, the psychiatrist often takes the lead. The ability to liaise with psychologists, social workers, nurses and other specialists is vital. A psychiatrist with adequate skills typically can manage a team, often with different opinions, and ensure the patient's treatment plan is consistent and effective.

Decision-making skills

Sometimes, the authorities might call upon a psychiatrist to diagnose a patient in an emergency situation, such as the sudden onset of mental illness after a traumatic event. The ability to make quick, effective decisions for the welfare of the patient is vital. Patients might display very challenging behaviours and a skilled psychiatrist can navigate this and use their clinical experience to make informed decisions.

Types of psychiatrist

There are various speciality areas within the field of psychiatry. Some of the most popular areas include:

  • General adult psychiatry: psychiatrists work to diagnose and treat adult patients aged between 18 and 65. The general adult psychiatrist treats a wide range of problems, including brain disorders, psychoses, depression and personality disorders.

  • Child and adolescent psychiatry: child psychiatrists treat mental, behavioural and emotional disorders among children and young teenagers. Often, a child psychiatrist works alongside psychologists, social workers and community health employees to ensure the proper development of the child within society.

  • Psychiatry of old age: also called psychiatry for later life, old age psychiatry focuses on patients over 65. Often, issues are similar to those in the adult group, but there are more instances of cognitive impairment, such as dementia.

  • Learning disability psychiatry: while a learning disability is not a mental illness, patients with learning difficulties are more likely to develop behavioural and emotional disorders. Learning disability psychiatrists usually work as part of a team of medical professionals either in a clinical setting, in the patient's family home or at a residential care home.

  • Addiction psychiatry: addiction psychiatry focuses on the treatment of patients addicted to drugs or alcohol, striving to understand and treat the individual. This work often takes place in prisons and methadone clinics or in outpatients settings.

  • Forensic psychiatry: forensic psychiatrists generally work with people who have a mental disorder, which means they are a risk to the public. Their work often involves investigating the links between mental disorders and criminal behaviour, and they often work alongside the Gardaí, courts, probationary bodies and prisons.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.