Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist

When an individual with a substance abuse disorder enters treatment, they will see a variety of mental health professionals during their stay. There are counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other experts in the mental health field that are vital throughout the entire process.

One of the most common misconceptions is that a psychiatrist and psychologist are the same things. Many times, individuals have a difficult time discerning between different positions in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Many people underestimate the importance of understanding the differences between the roles of a psychiatrist role and that of a psychologist. However, this understanding is critical in order to grasp the type of assistance each professional is providing.

Treatment can actually become more beneficial when an individual with a substance abuse disorder becomes more familiar with these roles and what they entail. Understanding the specific role of each expert gives individuals an opportunity to know what to expect from each type of treatment.

Without this understanding, it can be difficult to gauge how effective sessions are with each professional. Think of it like this – if you have separate appointments with a dentist and an orthodontist, you would have no idea of what to expect from each dental professional. How can you analyze the quality of the services you’re receiving if you don’t have a clear picture of which expert provides what services?

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If you or someone you know is preparing to enter treatment for substance abuse disorder or receive counseling, hopefully, this article provides clarity. This is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

The job of a psychiatrist includes diagnosing, evaluating, and treating individuals living with a variety of potential mental health conditions. These conditions can be short-term, chronic, mild, and severe. There is no specific timeline or severity for the conditions a psychiatrist treats. A psychiatrist is also qualified to do the following:

  • Provide emergency care for the sudden onset of mental illness
  • Assist individuals with long-term mental illness
  • Offer a second opinion or advice to primary care doctors and other experts
  • Provide referrals to other medical professionals
  • Admit individuals into a hospital if it’s required

These are the basics in terms of a psychiatrist. Now let’s examine some of the characteristics of a psychologist.

What Is a Psychologist?

The definition of a psychologist is an individual who provides psychotherapy. This may include cognitive and behavioral interventions. Typically, a psychologist will not operate in the field of biology or neurology, as physical elements aren’t within their scope of treatment. A psychologist will study the way an individual thinks and behaves in response to their environment. Normally, a psychologist will perform the following:

  • Identify patterns in individuals that help them predict behavior
  • Work with patients individually and with family to hit goals and undergo life changes
  • Identify and diagnose emotional and behavioral challenges and disorders
  • Craft and implement treatment plans
  • Work with physicians and social workers when needed

It’s clear that treatment options and approaches to therapy of a psychiatrist and a psychologist may overlap in many situations. Let’s examine more specifically some of the similarities between these two professionals.

Similarities Between a Psychiatrist and Psychologist

Similarities Between a Psychiatrist and Psychologist

While significant differences exist between the two, there are also many similarities between psychiatrists and psychologists. Listed below are some of the shared characteristics between these two professions.

They Are Both Sciences

Psychology and psychiatry are both considered sciences. Psychiatry is a part of the applied sciences, while psychology is a human or social science.


Psychiatrists and psychologists are both considered mental health experts. They both work with each other to better individuals with mental health challenges and substance abuse disorders.


Psychology is a general category of mind study. A clinical psychologist or medical psychologist is the closest equivalent to a psychiatrist.

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Modern psychiatry is focused on psychopharmacology, but some psychiatrists also provide psychotherapy. Many psychiatrists refer their patients to a psychologist for psychotherapy when it’s not an area they practice.

Normally, you will see both of these professions integrating services across disciplines. Individual treatment overall becomes more effective when professionals collaborate in an effort to craft a comprehensive treatment plan.

Other similarities may exist, but these tend to be the most relevant overlapping areas. What are the most significant differences between these two mental health experts?

Key Differences Between Psychiatry and Psychology

Despite the similarities between the two professions, the differences seem to be more significant. These are the key differences between psychiatrists and psychologists.

Education and Degrees

One of the most significant differences between these two professions is the fact that psychiatrists hold medical degrees while psychologists do not. However, psychologists are required to have at least six years of university training, and many logged hours of supervised experience.

Most psychologists have a Ph.D. in philosophy psychology degree. In the specific cases of psychologists that hold a doctorate, they can refer to themselves as “Doctor.” However, it’s important to note that they do not hold a degree in medicine. They do have significant training in diagnosing and treating various mental disorders.

A psychiatrist is a certified medical doctor with at least 11 years of school and training. Their journey will begin with a medical degree from their university of choice. After receiving their degree, they will spend at least one year of training as a general doctor. Finally, they will complete five years of training and certification in the field of mental illness. Psychiatrists hold an MD, which requires them to learn the specifics of the human body. They will also be certified in performing physical exams and specific treatments of various medical conditions.

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Ability to Medicate

Psychiatrists are medication-prescribing professionals with the ability to write prescriptions for their patients. In most cases, psychologists are not able to provide patients with prescriptions. However, with additional training, certain states allow psychologists to prescribe medication. These states include:

The medical degree that psychiatrists hold gives them the ability to write prescriptions. Regulations are much more restrictive when it comes to a psychologist prescribing medication. However, a psychologist who works in the United States Armed Forces can write prescriptions.

Treatment Offered

Psychologists focus solely on behavior normally, while psychiatrists provide a wider range of treatment. Both of these experts will discuss specific problems and challenges you are facing regarding mental health.

Typically, psychologists stick more to the topic of behavioral patterns. For example, if you are discussing a substance abuse disorder with a psychologist, they will discuss your daily habits, the specific environment in which you use, and negative thoughts that may contribute to your addiction.

Depending on what they discover, they will work with you on changing behavioral patterns and get to the root of what causes you to use. Psychological treatment and talk therapy is their primary method of treatment.

Psychiatrists may examine your behavioral patterns, but they focus more on biology and neurochemistry. This allows them to provide a much wider range of treatment options. These options include brain stimulation, medication, general medical care.

Conditions Treated

Normally, a psychologist will treat conditions that don’t require the use of medication. Because of this, a psychologist is used more frequently in the treatment of substance abuse disorder. However, this does not disqualify a psychiatrist from being instrumental in this specific area of treatment.

Psychiatrists tend to treat conditions such as:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety and panic disorder
  • Depression

Aside from treating these conditions specifically, substance abuse disorder is a major dynamic in both disciplines. We’ll outline addiction treatment and mental health professionals in the following section.

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Addiction Treatment and Mental Health Professionals

When the specific treatment of substance abuse disorder is required, psychiatrists and psychologists can both play a vital role in an individual’s recovery. Often, a psychologist is more commonly referred to as a counselor or therapist.

In a mental health practice, there is normally a specific dynamic that exists between psychiatrists and psychologists. Many times, patients will participate in sessions with a psychologist. They will discuss various elements of their mental health challenges and work toward a remedy via talk therapy.

Afterward, the notes and information logged by the psychologist are forwarded to a psychiatrist. These will be used in a subsequent meeting between the patient and psychiatrist.

Patients normally meet with a psychologist on a twice-per-month basis. Depending on the specifics of treatment, the patient will meet with the psychiatrist once per month or once every two months. The psychiatrist and patient will review the sessions that took place with the psychologist, and the psychiatrist for the patient will write for any necessary medications.

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How does this relationship work in terms of substance abuse treatment?

The main goal of substance abuse disorder treatment is to uncover the root of what is causing addiction. Normally a combination approach is provided that addresses mental health needs, emotional needs, and physical needs. This is especially true in cases of opioid abuse disorder, especially with the rising number of people seeking fentanyl rehab services.

During treatment, staff will provide clients with the ability to get the most out of both professionals. A healthy combination of the expertise of both psychologists and psychiatrists is the most efficient way to recover.

It’s important to have access to treatment for anxiety and depression, which a psychiatrist can provide. The psychologist will help to cope with the trauma, stress, and frustration involved with substance abuse disorder. In order to promote this environment, it’s vital that the client has access to an effective addiction treatment team.

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Overview of an Addiction Treatment Team

Addiction affects individuals mentally and physically. One of the most important dynamics of a successful recovery is having access to an addiction treatment team.

An addiction treatment team consists of several mental health professionals from various disciplines that work together to provide clients with the highest level of treatment available. This team will work together to provide the following:

  • A successful diagnosis of underlying mental health issues
  • Treatment for these underlying conditions
  • Talk therapy as a means of treatment
  • A temporary medication regimen during treatment
  • Ways to cope with triggers and solutions for life post-treatment

One of the most important tasks of an addiction treatment team is effective dual diagnosis treatment.

Effective Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis identifies and treats one or more accompanying mental issues with substance abuse disorder. These mental health issues may include the following:

The role of a psychiatrist is vital during dual diagnosis treatment. Many times, medications such as anti-depressants may be needed temporarily for the effective treatment of mental health challenges.

However, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of the psychologist during this treatment. A psychologist will typically provide more long-term solutions for mental health challenges via talk therapy and other cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) treatments.

Once an individual enters treatment, the treatment team will immediately begin work to craft a personalized treatment plan. These treatment plans include the framework to effectively treat clients individually.

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Creating a Personalized Treatment Plan

Creating a personalized treatment plan is vital, considering there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health and substance abuse disorder. Depending on the specific substance and other elements surrounding the client’s case, a personalized treatment plan may include the following:

Clients and mental health professionals will collaborate to craft the most efficient personalized treatment plan. These treatment plans will also include an end goal, outlining a client’s plan for reentering society and the home environment. This is crucial for promoting accountability and the client’s involvement in aftercare treatment services.

Accountability and Long Term Recovery

Once a client successfully completes treatment, understanding the importance of aftercare and long-term recovery is extremely important. With the help of the client’s addiction treatment team, they will receive education in accountability.

Accountability doesn’t just mean remaining sober and positioning themselves in an environment conducive to recovery. Participation in aftercare services is also a large part of accountability.

Group meetings and continuing elements of recovery are important aspects of aftercare. Additionally, remaining active in continuing mental health services via primary care is also crucial in remaining proactive in underlying conditions.

Aftercare Planning at Icarus Behavioral Health

The final element of aftercare is the possibility of long-term recovery through sober supports. Before exiting treatment, clients are normally required to acquire certain individuals essential in supporting recovery, be it a sponsor, sober support teams, or a recovery coach (or all of these). It’s each client’s job to remain active and in constant communication with these sober supports, and the Icarus Alumni team will reach out to help past any obstacles or slipping points.

Amazing things can happen when all of these mental health elements are combined with the proper aftercare services and the right support. Regardless of the severity of the individual situation, successful recovery becomes a real possibility with the right treatment team and support system.

Reach out to Icarus Behavioral Health now to learn more about our team of uniquely qualified psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, technicians and more. Let our compassionate Admissions team start coordinating your journey to recovery today with a phone call, we are here for you.

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