What's the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

Basically, a psychologist is one who has studied psychology, whereas a psychiatrist has a medical degree with a specialty in psychiatry. Most licensed psychologists (or therapists, counselors, etc.) hold a doctorate (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in their field. A psychiatrist is actually a doctor (M.D. or D.O.). Because of this distinction, a psychiatrist has the authority to prescribe and dispense drugs to patients, but a psychologist cannot.

Psychologists can be broken into two categories: Research and clinical. Research psychologists study human behavior and could work for a wide range of employers, including hospitals, businesses, governments, and nonprofits. Sometimes, they conduct controlled experiments, which can include observing behavior, conducting interviews, or analyzing survey results.

When you hear someone talk of "going to therapy," most often they are seeing a clinical psychologist. Clinical psychologists may be self-employed or they may work for a clinic, rehabilitation center, or hospital. These are the psychologists that offer counseling to people. A clinical psychologist might work with anyone who is mentally or emotionally disturbed, or may specialize in targeted conditions. Common reasons a patient may see a psychologist include:

  • Diagnosed mental disabilities, such as bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder, or adult fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Pain management for the terminally ill or for chronic sufferers of conditions like arthritis, lupus, or Crohn's disease
  • Addictions
  • Couples or family counseling
  • Phobias
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress (the sufferers of which can range from combat veterans to rape victims to the recently widowed)

Patients may see their psychologist for either short-term issues or long-term care.

Typically, psychiatrists spend less time with clients and patients than psychologists do and may not become as emotionally invested in them by having ongoing therapy sessions. While talk therapy is an important part of a psychiatrist's work, psychiatrists tend to be more clinical — they are trained to conduct physical exams, order and interpret laboratory tests and brain imaging studies, and monitor patients to make sure prescribed drugs are having the desired effect. A psychiatrist may also work closely with the patient's family as part of the patient evaluation and long-term care.

A psychiatrist might be called to testify in court regarding the mental state of someone involved in the trial, but the legal boundaries of both psychiatrists and psychologists are intricate: Both psychiatrists and psychologists are legally obligated to alert authorities if a patient expresses violent intentions, but they are both legally protected from being required to testify in court against their patients.