Female psychiatrist listening to a patient sitting right in front of her with a clipboard in her hand

The Difference Between Psychologist and Psychiatrist

Mental health continues to become more recognized as a factor heavily influencing physical health and essential to well-being. While mental health is relevant at every age, older adults face a set of collective challenges to their mental health warrant an age-specific approach to their care. 


One in four older adults experiences some form of mental health condition, like depression or anxiety. On top of that, two-thirds of seniors with mental health conditions do not receive appropriate treatment, and those over the age of 85 have the highest suicide rate of any age group.


Helping your loved one to pursue resources to preserve or restore their mental health is important, and understanding the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is a great place to start.

What Is a Psychologist?

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and human behavior. It explores how areas of consciousness, feelings, and emotions, influence habits, relationships, and motivations.


Psychologists work both in and outside of healthcare settings doing research, or they may practice in a clinical setting such as a private practice, a mental health clinic, a psychiatric hospital, or a rehabilitation programs. In healthcare settings, psychologists are often referred to as therapists, and they focus on helping patients address and overcome challenges associated with their mental illness.


Psychological counseling can help individuals deal with trauma or cope with the diagnosis of a mental health condition like major depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, and many more.  Therapists explore how one’s subconscious and unique set of lived experiences influence their reactions to specific environmental triggers.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that is focused on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. Psychiatrists are medical doctors (M.D.s or D.O.s) who specialize in mental health or substance abuse disorders.


These practitioners are qualified to assess both the mental and the physical aspects of emotional health that may be affecting an individual. Often, psychiatrists work with patients who may have mental health disorders with symptoms that severely impact their day-to-day life like schizophrenia or panic disorder. 


Psychiatrists are able to use psychotherapy as a therapeutic treatment, but they are also able to prescribe medications to bring relief. 

Differences Between Psychology and Psychiatry

Both psychologists and psychiatrists are concerned with improving the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of their clients. However, there are some key differences between them.

Treatment Methods

The main difference between the two is that psychiatrists are medical doctors who are able to prescribe medication. However, most psychologists are not medical doctors, and so are unable to prescribe medicine. With that said, both psychologists and psychiatrists are able to provide therapy as a treatment method. 


A psychologist will likely refer a patient to a psychiatrist if they are exhibiting signs of a mental illness that may benefit from medication. Likewise, psychiatrists may refer patients to a psychologist for focused talk therapy.

It should be noted that five states do allow medically trained psychologists to prescribe medication: New Mexico, Illinois, Louisiana, Iowa, and Idaho. 


Psychologists in those states may complete additional required training in order to obtain the right to prescribe.

Education and Training

Psychologists have completed a master’s or doctorate level of education involving hundreds of hours of shadowing.  Many states also require a practicing therapist to complete a fellowship in order to obtain supervised experience before actually gaining their license and being able to treat their own clients. The process usually takes anywhere between eight to ten years, on average.

Following medical school, psychiatrists must complete a four-year residency before being able to seek licensure. The process to become a psychiatrist is about 12 years in total.


While psychiatrists spend more time in school, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better equipped to handle a mental illness as opposed to a psychologist. They are just trained in a different way and are able to offer different treatment methods.

Conditions Treated

Generally, psychologists treat mental health disorders through psychotherapy and behavioral interventions — this may include talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and more.


Psychiatrists, on the other hand, generally use a combination of therapy and medication to help their patients. They can also choose to go with one or the other, but a combination of both is generally proven to be more effective

Psychologists and psychiatrists may work hand in hand on the same patient. While a psychiatrist may handle administering and monitoring medication for a patient, a psychologist can keep regular therapy appointments with them to see how the medication and/or other coping methods may be benefitting or worsening their behavior and mood.

Should I See a Psychologist or Psychiatrist?

If your loved one is exhibiting symptoms of a mental health disorder, you likely want to try to get them help as soon as possible. 


As a rule of thumb, many people tend to start with a psychologist first, as they may determine the symptoms may be managed with talk therapy alone.

However, they may refer you and your loved one to a psychiatrist if they feel that medication may also help. You can even ask a primary care physician for a psychiatric referral if you want to start with medication as you look for a therapist. 

Signs of Mental Illness in Older Adults

While mental illness is common, it is not considered to be a normal process of aging and definitely requires attention and treatment. Keep an eye out for some of the common warning signs that might alert you to a possible mental health condition in your loved one:

  • Noticeable changes in mood or energy level
  • Insomnia (not sleeping) or sleeping too much
  • Increased agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical signs of stress, like sweating, fidgeting, or heart palpitations
  • A need for alcohol or other drugs
  • Engagement in high-risk activities
  • Increased prevalence of wandering
  • A lack of enthusiasm for previously enjoyable activities

Mental health looks different for everyone. If you feel like your loved one is not acting like themselves, it never hurts to try to get them to see a professional.

Benefits of Psychiatry for Elderly Individuals

A specialized field of psychiatry known as geriatric psychiatry focuses on the obstacles to mental health that are emphasized with age. Physical illness and pain, inability to engage in previous activities, death of friends, and feelings of isolation are all prominent stressors for elderly individuals. Geriatric psychiatrists have additional training for understanding some of the challenges specific to seniors and in evaluating the presence of underlying progressive diseases such as Alzehimer’s or dementia, which can contribute to changes in mood in behavior.


Getting your loved one assistance for their mental health can greatly improve their quality of life – and yours.  The emotional outlet that a psychiatrist (or psychologist) can offer your loved one may relieve their previous dependence on you for emotional support, improving their own symptoms and minimizing their condition’s toll on caregivers.


If your loved one is already on a lot of medications, and you’re worried that even more might have adverse effects, a psychiatrist can be helpful here, too. They can assess the other medications that your loved one is taking, and can coordinate care with other physicians to consider more closely which medications are needed, which may need to be swapped out to minimize side effects, and if dose changes are indicated. 

Therapy and Psychiatry for Caregivers

Taking care of a loved one struggling with dementia or other signs of aging can be a full-time job. While it comes with its share of rewarding experiences, it can also be stressful and frustrating. Preventing caregiver burnout is equally essential as keeping your loved one’s mental wellbeing in good shape.

Caregiving counseling allows you to take advantage of mental health services to cope with your feelings while also implementing healthier coping behaviors when stressors arise. Not only can investing in your own mental health make you a more patient caregiver, it may even lower the stress your loved one experiences. 


Seeing a professional counselor can also allow you and your loved one to develop a deeper connection. Sessions may include both of your participation, and it may allow you and your family member to address concerns and come up with new ways to go about them.


Lightyear Health is proud to offer a caregiver wellness program to support the wonderful family and friends who seek support during even the most challenging times. If you’re interested, get in  touch with us. We’re here for you, and your loved one, every step of the way.

In Conclusion

Psychology and psychiatry are very much related, though there are some key differences that are necessary to know:

  • Psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior, whereas psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on treating mental disorders.
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists both need bachelor’s degrees, but only psychiatrists require medical school, which equips them to prescribe medication. 
  • While both are able to administer talk therapy as a treatment method, psychologists typically focus more on emotional and behavioral interventions and psychiatrists focus more on pharmacologic interventions. 

Both fields may add tremendous value to the care of your loved one. Since older adults are at a high risk of depression and anxiety, it’s important that they get the help they need.


Lightyear Health is relentlessly committed to improving the experience of aging. From behavioral health to medical rehabilitation, we’re committed to providing high-quality care to your loved ones in skilled nursing or assisted living facilities.



Seniors and Mental Health | PAHO

What Is Psychiatry? | American Psychiatric Association

About Prescribing Psychologists | American Psychological Association

Efficacy, effectiveness and efficiency in mental health service delivery | NIH

Psychotropic medications plus psychotherapy leads to improved outcomes | Society for Prescribing Pscyhology 

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