Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What Is the Difference & Whom to See
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
You’re ready to combat your addiction, and you know you need help. Should you see a psychologist or a psychiatrist? The answer varies from person to person.
The goal of any addiction treatment program is to help you regain control over your life. Psychiatrists and psychologists can develop and administer a science-based approach to addiction care.
But psychiatrists have more education and more rights within the medical community. They can do things that psychologists can’t do. A psychiatrist’s help could be critical if you have an underlying mental health condition, a potential brain injury, or another ailment that complicates your recovery.
You won’t make this decision alone. Your doctor and insurance company will help you decide whether a psychologist or psychiatrist is better for you. But here’s what you should know about the professionals who can guide your care.
|Common titles||Length of education||Annual compensation||Can diagnose mental illness||Can diagnose physical illness||Can prescribe medications||Can offer other treatments (like ECT)||Offers talk therapy|
|Psychologist||PhD, PsyD, or EdD||8 to 10 years||$80k||Yes||No||Rarely||No||Yes|
What Do the Titles Mean?
Both psychiatrists and psychologists are mental health professionals dealing with illnesses, including addiction. But their approach is slightly different.
Thoughts, behaviors, and emotions sit at the heart of psychology. A psychologist can help you understand the following:
- Triggers: What makes you crave drugs?
- People: What conflicts are you avoiding with drugs?
- Thought patterns: Is your self-talk keeping you from healing?
- Community: How can the people around you help or harm your recovery?
Chemical imbalances and mental illness diagnoses are a critical part of psychiatry. These doctors are qualified to run tests to spot signs of illness, and they can create robust treatment programs to address them.
A psychiatrist might do the following:
- Assess: Are your brain scans normal? How do you perform on mental health screenings?
- Diagnose: Do you have a mental illness complicating your recovery? Do you have a physical illness that can block your progress?
- Treat: Could you benefit from medications? Do you need electroshock therapy?
Training & Education for Psychologists & Psychiatrists
Your mental health is precious, and experts treat psychiatric illnesses with care and professionalism. Both psychologists and psychiatrists spend years in school preparing for their work.
Professionals must complete several steps before they can address your mental health. A psychologist must hold the following:
- An undergraduate degree
- A master’s degree
- A doctoral degree in psychology
Your psychologist likely has a PhD, PsyD, or EdD after their name. That title comes after an average of seven years spent in school and many more in training and internships.
Students prepare for a long stint in school when they hope to be psychiatrists. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that must hold the following:
- An undergraduate degree
- A doctoral degree in medicine
- A completed residency program in psychiatry
Some psychiatrists do even more and complete a fellowship in a subspecialty program. Your psychiatrist might have advanced education in addiction, for example. Most psychiatrists spend about 12 years in school and training.
You can call your psychiatrist “doctor,” and most will have MD after their names.
How Easy Is It to Find One?
Trained professionals are so critical to your recovery, but it’s not always easy to get the help you need.
There are an estimated 106,000 licensed psychologists in the United States, but there are only about 31,000 practicing psychiatrists. Chances are, it will be easier for you to schedule an appointment with a psychologist than a psychiatrist.
Compensation & Fees
Higher educations typically translate into higher salaries. Students have loans to pay back, and they sacrifice years of earning power to get the jobs they hold. Higher fees help them to do just that.
Consumers don’t always have to pay more to see doctors with higher compensation packages. But if you’re paying for care out of pocket, you can expect a bigger bill for your psychiatry visits.
Common Treatment Approaches
Both psychiatrists and psychologists are qualified to help people with addictions. But their approach is slightly different.
You’ll have one-on-one or group sessions with your mental health professional, and you’ll work on the ways you think about drugs, behave in response to triggers, and connect with other people.
Your psychologist will connect with your doctor if you need medications. You might see other specialists to help with physical and related mental health challenges.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that can perform laboratory and psychological tests. With the results, your psychiatrist can create physical, mental, and medication plans.
You might have talk sessions with your psychiatrist, just as you would with a psychologist. But your psychiatrist can use a complete arsenal of tools to address your challenges without referring you to another doctor.
3 Questions to Help You Choose Between a Psychiatrist & a Psychologist
Do you need a psychologist or a psychiatrist? These questions can help you find the right path forward.
1. Do You Have a Diagnosis?
Some people come into addiction treatment programs knowing that they have depression, anxiety disorders, traumatic brain injuries, or other issues that complicate recovery. If you’re a person like this, you might need a psychiatrist to provide complete care.
2. Do You Want to Avoid Medications?
Some people benefit from pharmaceutical treatments that ease cravings and reduce relapse risks. But others want to get sober without dipping into the medicine chest.
Working with a psychologist means getting medications is slightly harder. If you’d prefer to avoid medications, this could be a good option.
3. Will Your Insurance Company Let You Choose?
The psychiatrist shortage has been called an “escalating crisis,” and some experts are very worried about what this means for the future of health care. If your insurance company can’t partner with a psychiatrist due to a lack of availability, you may be required to work with a psychologist instead.
A Comprehensive Team
Know that whomever you choose is your partner in recovery. You don’t necessarily have to choose between either professional, as some people see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist. The frequency with which they see each professional depends on their needs at the time.
Be as open and honest as you can in your sessions with either professional, and follow your treatment plan carefully. Together, you can find a path forward. The work you do in sessions lays the foundation for your future in recovery.
How Effective Is Drug Addiction Treatment? (January 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
What Do Practicing Psychologists Do? (December 2019). American Psychological Association.
Inside America’s Psychiatrist Shortage. (February 2022). PsyCom.
Psychologists. (April 2022). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Psychiatrists. (March 2022). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What Is Psychiatry? American Psychiatric Association.
Addressing the Escalating Psychiatrist Shortage. (February 2018). Association of American Medical Colleges.
What Is the Difference Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Social Workers? American Psychological Association.