In my practice, I often explain to people how the occupations of a psychologist and a psychiatrist differ, because the majority of people do not know the answer. It is important to understand these differences when you or someone you know is dealing with a major psychological disorder so that you understand what services to seek from each professional.
Psychologists and psychiatrists receive very different formal training and help their patients in very different ways, although there are areas of overlap as well. Both psychologists and psychiatrists work in mental health, and both have expertise in assessing and treating patients with psychological disorders.
A psychologist is required to have a PhD in Clinical Psychology or Counselling Psychology from a university psychology department, or a DEd from a university education department in most places in North America, although a masters degree continues to be sufficient in a limited number of locations. Some psychologists hold a PsyD rather than a PhD or DEd.
Psychologists in Alberta must be registered with the College of Alberta Psychologists (CAP) in order to practice.
The training that psychologists receive enables them to treat patients with a broad range of psychological issues using a “bio-psycho-social” approach. This approach means psychologists consider the biological, the psychological, and the social factors that influence each individual they work with.
Psychologists do not prescribe medication. Rather, they work with patients in counselling, or “talk therapy.” Psychologists often use a cognitive behavioural theoretical approach. Briefly stated, a “cognitive approach” is used to help individuals change how they think, and a “behavioural approach” is used to help individuals change what they do. You can book an appointment with a psychologist without a referral from your family doctor.
A psychiatrist, on the other hand, has successfully completed a medical degree and has received further specialized training in psychiatry from a medical school. Psychiatrists specialize in understanding disorders that affect the brain. They are taught to treat patients using a “bio-medical” approach, which means they focus on biological and medical factors that influence psychological disorders.
Psychiatrists in Alberta must be registered with the Alberta Medication Association (AMA) in order to practice.
As physicians, psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications, and have vast knowledge about how medications used to treat and manage psychological disorders affect the brain and the body. They also understand how these medications interact with other medications.
When you meet with a psychiatrist, it will typically be in a medical setting such as a hospital, doctor’s office, or medical clinic. You need a referral from a family doctor to see a psychiatrist in Alberta outside of an urgent care setting.
Both psychologists and psychiatrists work with individuals who are dealing with a variety of psychological issues, including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, dementia, eating disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and schizophrenia to name a few. It is beneficial to work with both a psychologist and a psychiatrist in cases where the individual being treated will benefit from access to both the correct medications and to help change how they think and how they behave.
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Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta