There’s a lot of confusion about what psychiatrists and what psychologists do. In the beginning of our profession, there was no distinction, really, because psychiatry was invented by a medical doctor, Sigmund Freud. As the years have worn on, however, the functions and duties have become separate. I would like to help clarify some of the differences.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training in psychiatry, namely treatment of diseases of the mind. Some psychiatrists still spend time talking to their patients at length about life’s problems and how to cope with them better. However, for whatever reason, they have a lot less time now, especially since managed care has become such a prevalent force in the mental health field. Unfortunately, their time has become more and more valuable and a lot of times they are in a hurry to treat as many people as possible. At is not their fault; it’s just how it is and a lot of communities. As a result, people sometimes go to psychiatrists and feel offended and hurt that the psychiatrist can’t spend a lot of time listening to their problems. This is unfortunate, because sometimes people didn’t want medication in the first place and were hoping to be heard and understood. This doesn’t mean that psychiatrists can hear and understand people, just that there focuses mostly on how the person is doing physically with their mental health condition. Psychiatrists spend most of the time evaluating the symptoms presented to them and how medication can address so symptoms. They can be true lifesavers if a person has a mental health condition that lends itself to medication. For instance, severe depression and bipolar disorder often require medication in order for the person to fully heal. Similarly, psychotic disorders like Schizophrenia require medication in order to have a productive, happy life.
Psychologists are experts in psychology. There are many different types. For instance, forensic psychologists work in the law and criminal justice capacities. They do evaluations, psychological testing, and write reports about their findings, as well as testify in court cases. Health psychologists specialize in helping people with medical conditions and do research on different topics, such as the role of stress and different diseases on mental processes. Clinical psychologists treat emotional and psychological illness by using psychotherapy and often work in conjunction with psychiatrists. This is what I do mostly, and I am very grateful to have the ability to collaborate with medical professionals when there are complex cases of mental disturbance. Not everyone who sees a psychologist needs medication or wants medication; some want to try psychotherapy before resorting to medication, and women who are breast-feeding often want to wait until they are no longer breast-feeding to try medication. I respect the desires and needs of the patient, that in cases where severe mental illness is present, I strongly recommend that people at least be evaluated by a psychiatrist. There are also things that people can do to help themselves feel better that don’t involve medication or talk therapy, and I encourage people to take care themselves as much is possible in order to be empowered and have a full, healthy life. For example, exercise can be and honestly helpful for depression and anxiety. Taking medication is not incompatible with exercise, meditation, yoga, good nutrition, or any other non-pharmacological interventions. If you choose to take the herbs or supplements, however you should check to make sure they don’t interfere with whatever medication you’re taking, whether it be psychiatric meds or medications for physical illness.
I hope this clears up some of the common misconceptions about what I do versus what a psychiatrist does. We still have a long way to educate the general public about how each can help people with emotional and psychiatric illness. However, hopefully this is a step in the right direction.