Written by Shannon,
Medically reviewed by:
Jen Miller, PMHNP-BC
If you are experiencing a mental health condition, you have likely heard the terms “psychiatrist,” “psychologist,” and “psychiatric nurse practitioners” (PMHNPs), but it can be confusing to figure out what the difference is between them, and what it is they actually do.
Psychiatrists are a critical part of obtaining proper care for a variety of mental health conditions , and they have many roles to fulfill. From diagnosis to medication prescriptions, a psychiatrist can work with you at every stage of the process to ensure you are getting your needs taken care of.
Let’s take a look at what a psychiatrist is and how they can help, and how they differ from a psychologist or therapist.
What is a psychiatrist? What do they do?
Psychiatry is just one branch of medicine, and it focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, and even prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. A psychiatrist is a doctor who specializes in this area and is well-equipped to address mental health and substance abuse disorders.
You may opt to see a psychiatrist due to sudden problems or longer term concerns. Examples of sudden problems where it may be beneficial to speak with a psychiatrist include panic attacks, feelings of anxiety, or a recent loss or life change, and longer term concerns include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or anxiousness that aren’t going away.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors, which means that they have the ability to both order and perform laboratory tests or psychological evaluations, and these can help provide a more complete understanding of a specific individual’s needs and mental state. Psychiatrists are thoroughly educated and well-trained through clinical programs, making them highly qualified when it comes to addressing any emotional or mental concerns you are having.
Psychiatrists are trained to use a wide variety of treatments depending on the needs of each person, and these may include therapy, medication, or both. Both psychotherapy and medication can be used to help treat a variety of mental disorders and, and these treatment methods may also be combined with certain lifestyle changes that can be highly conducive to recovery and management of symptoms.
There is a growing trend in certified psychiatric nurse practitioners, also known as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) working in psychiatry. While PMHNPs are not doctors, they are advanced practice RNs and are both trained and licensed to provide a wide array of treatments. Brightside’s psychiatric providers are psychiatric nurse practitioners or MDs and follow the American Psychiatric Association practice guidelines for prescribing medication. You can learn more about how Brightside Health prescribes medication using our proprietary prescribing-engine for clinical decision support here.
There are several different classes of medications that a psychiatrist might prescribe, including:
- Antipsychotic medications
- Sedatives and anxiolytics
- Mood stabilizers
In many cases, medications will be prescribed alongside psychotherapy for better results.
What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?
While psychiatrists and psychologists are both mental health professionals that treat mental health disorders, they are not one and the same, and there are some key differences between them. Now that we have outlined the many roles of a psychiatrist and psychiatric provider, you may be wondering how they differ from psychologists, and why these differences are so important.
Psychologists, also known as therapists, are trained experts in psychological assessment and psychotherapy. They earn a doctoral degree from accredited universities. They can earn either a PhD (doctor of philosophy), a PsyD (doctor of psychology), or an EdD (doctor of education). These doctoral programs involve 4-5 years of post-baccalaureate (post Bachelor’s degree) education focusing on human behavior, evidence-based assessment and psychotherapy, and research and scientific methods.
After this academic work is completed, students in clinical psychology doctoral programs must then complete a 1-year internship which focuses on clinical training, and then 1-2 additional years of post-doctoral work to focus on their areas of specialization.
In most states in the United States, psychologists cannot prescribe medications to treat mental health problems. Psychologists’ primary way of treating mental health problems is therapy.
In addition to conducting psychotherapy, psychologists can also diagnose mental health problems through psychological assessment/testing. If a person is wondering if they have ADHD, or anxiety, or OCD, for example, psychologists are trained to administer specific tests to determine the person’s diagnosis. Psychologists with specialized training can also conduct psychoeducational or neuropsychological testing as well.
How to know if you should see a psychiatric provider or psychiatrist
Taking all of this into consideration, maybe you are struggling to decide whether or not it may be time to seek help in order to address your mental health.
When you are trying to make this decision, there are a few key considerations that may help steer you in the right direction.
If any of the following apply to you to the extent that they are interfering with your life, this is a good indication that you may benefit from seeing a psychiatrist or pyschiatric provider:
- You feel overwhelmed and stressed.
- You are often tired and fatigued.
- You struggle with disproportionate anger, frustration, or resentment.
- You often experience anxious or intrusive thoughts.
- You are losing interest in daily activities and becoming apathetic.
- You are feeling hopeless and losing motivation.
- You are withdrawing from social activities and becoming more isolated.
Seeing a psychiatric provider may help improve your quality of life by allowing you to address your mental health difficulties and learn more about yourself, but you should keep in mind that it takes time to see real improvements, so patience is key.
If you are seeking professional mental health care, Brightside Health is here for you. We provide quality psychiatric care with unlimited access to caring providers, science-backed approaches, and precision prescribing. You can start by completing our free online assessment, which allows us to more completely assess your needs and concerns, and then we will match you with a psychiatric provider who will craft a personalized treatment plan, and stay by your side at every step. Brightside specializes in medication and therapy, or a combination of both, and medications can even be delivered right to your doorstep.
The bottom line
Psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of emotional, mental, and behavioral difficulties, and they are well-equipped to address both short-term and long-term issues. Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they are able to prescribe medications as well as diagnose illnesses and disorders. Psychiatric providers are also trained and licensed to diagnose and prescribe medication too. Psychologists are more so focused on the therapy portion of treatment, offering evidence-based therapy and strategies to overcome obstacles.
Psychiatric providers, psychiatrists, and psychologists do, however, often work together. A psychiatric provider may carry out initial assessments and diagnoses before referring individuals to a psychologist for ongoing care, like psychotherapy, or they may collaborate with therapists to develop the right treatment for you. Some psychiatrists can treat individuals with psychotherapy themselves. At Brightside Health, psychiatric providers prescribe medication and help with medication management, treatment, and refills. Therapists help with evidence-based therapy where you can talk through your concerns and build skills.
When it comes to deciding whether or not it is time to seek out help for your mental health needs, there are some key factors to take into consideration, such as feelings of stress, hopelessness, fatigue, disproportionate anger, anxious or intrusive thoughts, apathy, or loss of motivation. These kinds of feelings are generally a good indication that treatment may be highly beneficial for you, and seeing a professional can help you understand what else may be able to help.
When it comes to quality mental health care, Brightside is here to help you with our evidence-based therapy, psychiatry with medication delivery, and other science-backed approaches.