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 medical 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. If this is needed.
Psychologists usually have a 4-year university degree. 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.
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.
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.
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.
You can use the Question Builder tool to create your question list for the appointment. Prepare your list, then print or email it so you remember what you want to ask.
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.
If you see your doctor, they might refer you to a psychologist with a mental health treatment plan. If so, Medicare covers some or all of the costs. You can see a psychologist without a mental health treatment plan, but then Medicare doesn’t help with the fees.
Private health insurance may not cover costs of a psychiatrist or psychologist. 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.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: October 2017