If you have a mental illness, or are not coping well with things, there are specialised healthcare professionals who can help. These include psychiatrists and psychologists.
What does a psychiatrist do?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed specialised training in psychiatry, which is how to diagnose, treat and prevent mental, emotional and behavioural disorders.
You will probably need to see a psychiatrist if you have a severe mental health condition such as:
- severe depression
- anxiety disorders, like panic attacks and phobias
- complex conditions, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
- eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Psychiatrists work in hospitals, clinics and with community mental health services, as well as in private practice.
Many, but not all, psychiatrists are registered with the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). They must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). You can check their registration at the AHPRA website.
What does a psychologist do?
Psychologists are registered health professionals who are trained in human behaviour. Some psychologists choose to complete further training to become endorsed in specific areas of psychology, such as clinical psychology, neuropsychology, health, community, forensic, organisational, and sports and exercise psychology.
Psychologists work in areas such as schools, hospitals, community health services, courts, prisons, businesses and private practices.
They may specialise in helping children, teenagers or families. More information about the types of psychologists is available on the Australian Psychological Society (APS) website.
You might visit a psychologist for help with problems such as:
- depression, anxiety or stress
- drug and alcohol abuse
- eating disorders
- fears and phobias
- low self-esteem
- post-traumatic stress disorder
A psychologist can also help you deal with challenges you may face in life such as:
Practising psychologists must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). You can check this at the AHPRA website.
What are the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists?
The main difference between the two is that a psychiatrist has trained as a medical doctor and can prescribe medication. A psychologist is not a medical doctor and can't prescribe medication.
However, there are many similarities between psychiatrists and psychologists. Both are trained to understand how your brain works, how you think and how you behave. Both are able to use different types of counselling and psychotherapy to help.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists use various forms of therapy to help with mental health problems. They can help you develop better ways of thinking and behaving.
Should I see a psychiatrist or psychologist?
You might need to see a psychiatrist if:
- your condition is severe
- it has lasted a long time, or continues to come back
- other treatment isn’t working
- you are thinking about self-harm or suicide
- your doctor believes you should see one
You might need to see a psychologist if:
- you are experiencing anxiety, depression, stressful life events or any other mental health difficulty
- you feel like life is more difficult and need support to cope
- you would like an assessment of your mental health
If you have a choice between several different practitioners, questions to ask them include:
- How can you help me?
- How many sessions do I need?
- How often do I need to see you?
- How much do you charge?
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
How can I find a psychiatrist or psychologist?
Visit your doctor (GP) if you feel you need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist, or you are a carer of someone who might. Your doctor will usually choose one for you.
Read more here about speaking to your doctor about mental health.
You can find a psychologist by using the APS search engine, or a clinical psychologist by using the Australian Clinical Psychology Association’s search directory.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
How much do psychiatrists or psychologists cost?
Medicare covers some of the costs of seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist if you have a referral or a mental health treatment plan from your doctor.
Private health insurance may not cover the costs unless you’re in hospital. Ask about the psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s fees before making an appointment.
You can get more information about low cost or free mental health services.
Resources and support
You can read more about psychiatrists at the Royal & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, about psychologists at the Australian Psychological Society and about clinical psychologists at Australian Clinical Psychology Association.
The Black Dog Institute website has lots of information on getting help.
Beyond Blue has information about different types of treatment for depression.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: October 2021