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What's the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist? Add to ...

I have decided that I need to seek help for some emotional issues. Should I see a psychiatrist or a psychologist? What's the difference?

Recognizing that you are having emotional difficulties can be difficult to admit, but it's the first step to getting effective treatment. It can be confusing, however, to know who to go to for help as there are so many different types of mental-health professionals out there.

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Psychologists and psychiatrists are both mental health specialists with expertise in assessing and treating emotional issues. They have approximately the same number of years of formal training. Although there are some similarities between psychology and psychiatry, there are also some important differences in their type of training, focus and treatment approaches.

Training

  • A psychologist typically has a PhD in psychology and has completed a clinical residency in psychology. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed specialty training and a residency in psychiatric medicine.

Focus

  • Psychology is founded on the study of the range of all human behaviour - both normal and abnormal. Psychiatry has a more restricted focus on diagnosed mental health conditions.
  • Psychologists focus on a broad range of causes and contributors to emotional difficulties, including environment and life situations, thinking patterns and styles, personality factors, physiological function, behavioural patterns, and learning and childhood history. Psychiatrists generally view emotional problems as the result of some abnormality or malfunctioning of the human body, such as a chemical imbalance.

Treatment and referral process

  • Psychologists provide non-medication treatment (or "talk therapy") focused on helping individuals to control and change their own behaviour and thinking patterns and to improve their coping skills as a primary method of treating problems. Psychiatrists prescribe medication as a primary means of affecting emotional function.
  • You can book an appointment with a psychologist without a referral from your doctor. To see a psychiatrist, you need a referral.
  • Most psychological services are not paid for by the public health-care system, although extended medical benefits often will cover a portion of these services. Psychiatric services are covered by provincial health care, but unfortunately wait times can be as long as six months.

Some people benefit from seeing both a psychologist and a psychiatrist who work together. Speak to your family physician to get some advice and guidance on who can best help you.

Your provincial psychological association can assist with answering questions about how to find a psychologist best suited to your needs.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

Click here to see Q&As from all of our health experts.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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