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What’s the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

Dr. Joti Samra

October 2, 2019

Resiliency

Recognizing that you are having emotional difficulties can be challenging to admit, but it’s the first step to getting effective treatment. So, good for you for getting there, but figuring out how to get the help you need can be another daunting step as there are so many different types of mental health professionals.

Psychologist vs Psychiatrist

Psychologists and psychiatrists are both mental health specialists with expertise in assessing and treating emotional issues. They have approximately the same number of years of formal training. While there are some similarities between psychology and psychiatry, there are also some important differences in their type of training, focus and treatment approaches. We will address each of these topics below.

Training

  • A psychologist typically has a PhD in psychology and has completed a clinical residency in psychology.
  • A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed specialty training and a residency in psychiatric medicine.

Focus

  • Psychology is founded on the study of the range of all human behaviour – both normal and abnormal. Psychiatry has a more restricted focus on diagnosed mental health conditions.
  • Psychologists focus on a broad range of causes and contributors to emotional difficulties, including environment and life situations, thinking patterns and styles, personality factors, physiological function, behavioural patterns, and learning and childhood history. Psychiatrists generally view emotional problems as the result of some abnormality or malfunctioning of the human body, such as a chemical imbalance.

Treatment and Referral Process

  • Psychologists provide non-medication treatment (or “talk therapy”) focused on helping individuals to control and change their own behaviour and thinking patterns and to improve their coping skills as a primary method of treating problems. Psychiatrists prescribe medication as a primary means of affecting emotional function.
  • You can book an appointment with a psychologist without a referral from your doctor. To see a psychiatrist, you need a referral.
  • Most psychological services are not paid for by the public health-care system, although extended medical benefits often will cover a portion of these services. Psychiatric services are covered by provincial health care, but unfortunately, wait times can be as long as six months.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have their own areas of expertise. Some individuals are matched with one or the other and see results, but you may also benefit from seeing both who work together to support you. Speak to your family physician to get some advice and guidance on who can best help you. Your provincial psychological association can also assist with answering questions about how to find a psychologist best suited to your needs.
 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.

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