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Clinical Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

The terms therapist, psychologist, counselor, and psychiatrist often get jumbled, yet there are important distinctions between them. This lesson will highlight the similarities and differences between a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist.

Two Different Kinds of Doctors

Stay-at-home mom Emily is feeling depressed and lonely after the birth of her daughter. After a few months of venting nightly to her husband, he recommends she see a counselor. Emily agrees and begins looking at options on their insurance panel. She is terribly confused as to who she should see, and finds herself asking: 'What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist?'

Both psychiatrists and clinical psychologists treat mental and behavioral health problems. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has graduated from medical school, passed the medical board exam, and completed a four-year residency in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are trained to do therapy like clinical psychologists, but many times they focus on medication management. If Emily wants psychotropic medications for depression, she would need to see a psychiatrist for a prescription and medication management. Clinical psychologists, by contrast, are not able to prescribe medications.

A clinical psychologist has a bachelor's degree and a master's in a psychology-related field, and a doctorate or Ph.D. in clinical psychology. A doctorate degree is the highest degree in a field, so a clinical psychologist has acquired the highest possible degree in the specialty field of clinical psychology. Many clinical psychologists are required to get field experience for a year or two under the supervision of another clinical psychologist before getting licensed.

Emily was initially confused by the fact that both psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are called doctors. The difference is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor and a clinical psychologist is a doctor who has earned a doctorate in the field of clinical psychology.

What Do Clinical Psychologists & Psychiatrists Do?

Education

Medical school and a clinical psychology doctorate program are very different. Medical school and psychiatry residencies focus on the human body and brain and medicine to treat psychiatric disorders, while a doctorate program in clinical psychology is more concerned with the human mind, cognition, mental health conditions, and therapy techniques.

Psychotherapy

Both a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist are trained to perform psychotherapy in the treatment of all mental health disorders in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In fact, because of their years of education and expertise, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists are often sought out for treatment of the more serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, personality disorders or psychotic bipolar disorder.

Because of the way the healthcare system operates, psychiatrists often focus more on diagnosis and medication management. Often psychiatrists have shorter visits with clients and patients than clinical psychologists. If a psychiatrist thinks that their client would benefit from additional therapy, they may refer their client to a clinical psychologist. The same is true for a clinical psychologist who notices that their patient or client needs medication; they will often refer the patient to a psychiatrist for dual treatment.

Work Environments

Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists can often be found working in private practice settings. A private practice of clinical psychologists usually has at least one psychiatrist on board for clients who need a prescription for medication. Some psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are also professors at universities. In fact, private practice may be the largest work environment for psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, but there are actually many other places of work where one would find a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.

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