What’s the Difference Between Psychologists and Psychiatrists?

Professionals that can help you and your family improve you mental health and well-being include counsellors, psychotherapists, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.  In previous blogs we not only learned about the similarities between counselling, psychotherapy, and social work, we also learned about the differences between Canadian certified counsellors, psychotherapists, and social workers.  As a reminder, each of these professionals has a master’s level degree of education and must belong to a professional college such as the OCSWSSW or the CRPO.  Canadian certified counsellors and psychotherapists must meet specific supervision and direct clinical contact (face to face in a therapy room) requirements, and social workers must demonstrate a minimum of 5 years’ experience in a social work setting.

What about  psychologists and psychiatrists?  What exactly is the difference between them? Are they interchangeable? Let’s dive in and help you determine who might be the right fit for you and your family needs.

Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists: What’s the Deal?

First off, let’s clear something up: psychologists and psychiatrists are both experts in mental health, but they have different training and approaches to helping people.

Psychologists: The Mind Experts

Think of psychologists as the “mind experts.” They focus on understanding how people think, feel, and behave. Psychologists typically hold advanced degrees in psychology, such as a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology. In Ontario, psychologists are regulated by the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO).

What They Do:

Psychologists are trained to assess a wide range of mental health issues, emotional challenges, cognitive functioning, and personality traits. They use various methods, such as interviews, psychological tests, and behavioural observations, to gather information about a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  They can diagnose various mental health disorders based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria. These may include learning disorders (such as dyslexia and ADHD), mood disorders (like depression and bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder), and trauma-related disorders (like post-traumatic stress disorder).  Psychologists focus on understanding the underlying psychological factors contributing to a person’s symptoms and tailor treatment accordingly.  Though psychologists can diagnose, they cannot prescribe medications.  That’s where psychiatrists come in.

Psychiatrists: The Brain Doctors

Now, let’s turn our attention to psychiatrists, who are sometimes called the “brain doctors.” They are medical doctors (MDs) who specialize in mental health. After completing medical school, psychiatrists undergo additional training in psychiatry. In Ontario, psychiatrists are represented by the Ontario Psychiatric Association.

What They Do:

Psychiatrists are trained to diagnose mental health conditions and can prescribe medications to help manage symptoms. They may also provide therapy, although their primary focus tends to be on medication management. Psychiatrists often work with individuals who have severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Therapists…Oh My!

Finding mental health services in Windsor can be confusing due to all the terms out there.  Remember that it’s your right to make an informed choice about your care.  Please ask questions about education, experience, and collage memberships, and approach to care.  To feel more confident as you begin your search, first review these blog posts:

What’s the Difference Between Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Social Work?

What’s the Difference Between Counsellors, Psychotherapists, and Social Workers?

Then remember these differences:

  • Counselling, psychotherapy, and social work are terms that are used interchangeably though there are some differences.
  • Professionals that provide counselling and psychotherapy services include Canadian certified counsellors, psychotherapists, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.  The terms counsellor and therapist are not regulated so anyone can use them. Ensure you check for credentials including level of education and membership to a regulatory college.
  • Canadian certified counsellors, psychotherapists, and social workers who provide counselling and psychotherapy services should have master’s degree levels of educations. They must also belong to a college (OCSWSSW or CRPO).  They cannot diagnose or prescribe medication.
  • Psychologists have PhD levels of education, belong to the CPO, can diagnose, and cannot prescribe medication.
  • Psychiatrists have PhD levels of education, belong to the Ontario Psychiatric Association, can diagnose, and can prescribe medication.

If you’re unsure where to start, consider talking to your family doctor or reaching out to a mental health clinic for guidance. Ultimately, the most important thing is to take that first step toward getting the support you need to improve your mental well-being.  Remember, you’re not alone, and help is available. Don’t hesitate to reach out and take care of you and your family.

Authored by: Jessica Swabey, MACP, CCC, RSW