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Psychiatrists vs psychologists

Many people are confused about the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists. There are many similarities and some differences. It is important to find one that suits you.

Education and approach

Psychiatrists have studied first to become a doctor. Once they have graduated as a doctor, they can take on more study and training with the aim of becoming a psychiatrist.

When they study psychiatry, they learn to diagnose, treat and prevent mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. They can prescribe medications, like antidepressants, and can usually admit you to hospital.

Psychologists usually have a 4-year university degree in arts or science with an emphasis on psychology. After university, they typically complete a further 2 years of education and training to obtain 'general registration'.

General registration as a psychologist enables someone to work in areas of psychology in which they are competent and to use the title 'Psychologist'. Some psychologists choose to complete further training to become endorsed in specific areas of psychology such as clinical psychology.

Similarities

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 problems like depression, anxiety, stress, grief, bipolar disorder, relationship breakdowns, drug and alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can help you develop better ways of thinking and behaving.

Differences

In many situations, it is hard to know whether seeing a psychologist or seeing a psychiatrist would be a better choice.

But there are differences. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications, which psychologists can't do. Because of this, psychiatrists tend to look after more people with severe mental illness who need medication. Psychiatrists can also admit people to hospital, which psychologists can't do.

Generally, psychologists will be focussed on helping you in practical ways, while psychiatrists will be focussed on helping you understand yourself. But that is not a hard and fast rule.

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.

Referral and assessment

Your doctor can refer you to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, who will talk to you about your problems. They will then let you know about the best treatment for you. Many have particular approaches they favour - see if they suit you.

If you are the parent or carer of a child, the psychiatrist or psychologist will work with you and other health professionals.

You can see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist without a referral, but if you do, Medicare won't cover any of the costs.

What do they cost?

Outside of hospital, Medicare covers some of the costs of seeing a psychiatrist if you have a referral or a mental health plan from your doctor.

Private health insurance may not cover costs. Check with your doctor or psychologist. If you have private health insurance, speak to them about what is covered.

Treatment by a psychiatrist in public hospitals is usually free. Treatment in private hospitals is partly covered for a limited period by private health insurance.

Read more about low cost or free mental health services.

Where to get help

To speak to someone urgently call Lifeline on 13 11 14: SANE on 1800 18 7263: or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

To find a psychologist or psychiatrist, you can:

Last reviewed: May 2016

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