There is often much confusion between the terms psychiatrist and psychologist. People may use these terms interchangeably, but this is not to be the case. While both psychiatrists and psychologists treat people suffering from mental health issues and behaviour disorders, they are not the same. When should I see a psychiatrist? Is psychiatry and psychology even the same thing? Who should I see first? Such thoughts may run through your mind when mental health treatment is brought up. In this article, we hope to clear the doubts and achieve greater clarity on who they really are and how they differ.
Before we begin, if you’re reading this article to find important insights on seeking help from a mental health professional, we would like to commend you for taking the necessary steps to help yourself or your loved one. Making such a decision can be very daunting, and your mind might be in a disarray with constant worries of familial, societal and cultural stigma. However, it is ever so important to remember that there is no shame or embarrassment in wanting to help yourself or your loved one get better. Mental health is equally as important as physical health and seeking help is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
What’s the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?
Fundamentally, the biggest difference between the two is in the approach they take towards treating mental disorders, and the capacity to prescribe medications. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are trained medical doctors at their core. Amongst the network of mental healthcare professionals, psychiatrists are certified to provide neuropharmacological support that is deemed essential in stabilising certain mental conditions, such as where chemical imbalances in the brain are involved.
As medical doctors, psychiatrists play a crucial role in the diagnostic process, as well as the prevention and treatment of emotional, mental, behavioral, and developmental issues. While conducting assessments, they may also involve relevant physical examinations, blood tests, or pharmacogenomic testing to narrow down the scope of diagnosis. While psychiatrists specialise in the mental phenomena, such physical examinations cannot be omitted entirely especially if they provide important clues to help them rule out other possible physical conditions.
Psychiatrists also have the capacity to assess your medical history. Physical and mental wellness go hand-in-hand – psychiatrists will need to grasp the full picture before finalising on a diagnosis. On the Huffington Post, Carol W. Berman, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical Center in New York City, writes, “Because we learned how the body interacts with the mind, we can rule out physical disorders as a cause of mental illness. This is important, since a person may have a hyperactive thyroid, for example, which can trigger panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, or anorexia. We can look at thyroid blood tests or have a patient consult an endocrinologist if we suspect the problem stems from thyroid disease.”
In contrast, psychologists are not trained medical doctors, and thus cannot conduct any physical examinations nor prescribe medications. Clinical psychologists however, possess an accredited Master’s in Applied Psychology at the very minimum, and can make a diagnosis for the patient if he thinks he has a mental health condition.
Psychologists typically make use of various methods of psychometric testing, personality tests, observations and interviews to come to a conclusion. But that’s not all – psychologists also engage in psychotherapy treatment, with common forms including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Psychotherapy aims to help clients identify their key issues and concerns, before moving on to create a treatment plan to achieve the desired outcomes. Often conducted over several sessions, psychotherapy equips the individual with problem-solving and emotion-coping strategies to overcome the problem. For example, if a client comes in hopes of seeking help for social anxiety, psychotherapy (such as CBT) would be greatly beneficial in tackling maladaptive, limiting thoughts and behaviours that fuel negative emotions.
While there are differences in qualifications and the methods of treatments applied by psychiatrists and psychologists, it is key to note that they still work closely together. For the optimal treatment of certain mental health conditions, psychiatrists may refer you to psychologists for concurrent psychotherapy. Likewise, if a clinical psychologist determines your condition to be better managed with medications, a referral to a psychiatrist can be expected. Often once a proper diagnosis is done, the psychiatrist and psychologist may work together to build a treatment plan for the patient, focusing on managing symptoms through the use of medications and psychotherapy.
Who Should I See First?
Where physical symptoms may be severe, or where it may be hard to take basic care of yourself, turning to a psychiatrist would be a good option. After all, psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who can also work with your primary care doctor (if any) to provide optimal treatment. It is also suitable for individuals who are unsure as to whether their physical symptoms are linked to other underlying medical conditions. In such cases, psychiatrists will be able to detect a medical mimic. To put it simply, take for example a presenting complaint linked to the shortness of breath. While it may seem like a panic attack, it is crucial to eliminate any other clinical suspicions of lung diseases such as pulmonary embolism.
On the other hand, you may choose to make a trip to see a psychologist if you think you have a less severe mental condition. For individuals seeking to overcome phobias or resolve difficult issues in life, it may be more effective to undertake psychotherapy. A Psychologist can help you work through your problems, deal with emotional challenges or cope with particularly traumatic life events so as to make positive changes in your life.
We can all play a part in alleviating our own or our loved one’s suffering by increasing our understanding of mental health disorders. If you’re still struggling with making a decision after much thought, making the first step to contact a professional would help. You can be assured that the team at Promises will serve with your best interests at heart, and will work closely with you to provide optimal treatment.