What is the Difference between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

Psychologist sitting with a patient

Most people are aware that psychologists and psychiatrists are both trained to work with mental health issues but are often confused at the difference between them, especially as the practice for both largely involves talking with patients about their problems.

The main difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that psychiatrists first study medicine and consequently can write prescriptions. Some countries do allow psychologists to prescribe medication but the list of medications they can prescribe is usually restricted and the psychologist is required to undertake an additional course dealing with pharmaceuticals.


Other differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist include:

  • Psychiatrists are often more interested in biology and neurochemistry and will typically rule out an underlying medical problem before making a mental health diagnosis, whereas psychologists tend to be more interested in behaviour and may look at daily routine as well as thought processes that could be contributing to the issue.
  • Psychologists often specialise and have specific training in various forms of non-medical therapy to help with specific issues such as helping people cope with grief or trauma, organisational psychology assisting businesses with change management, or as a forensic psychologist working in the legal system.
  • Psychiatrists typically restrict their client base to those people who have a mental health issue whereas psychologists will additionally work with people who are mentally healthy but perhaps wish to enhance their wellbeing in some way, for example, sport and exercise psychology can involve performance enhancement and team building.
  • The most common employment setting for psychiatrists in Australia is private practice, followed by hospitals and community health services. Psychologists are employed in a range of settings including schools, hospitals, the defence force, private business, and private practice.
  • Fees for psychiatrists tend to be considerably more than that of a psychologist and they typically have longer waiting lists. In Australia, psychiatrists require a referral but psychologists do not except for certain circumstances, such as being able to claim a Medicare rebate under a GP initiated plan.

Those are the main differences between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. It is important to note that both professions often work together and it is not unusual for a patient to see a psychologist on a regular basis for therapy while also seeing a psychiatrist occasionally to review progress and medications.