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So, you have a mental health issue, and you're wondering if it is time to see a psychiatrist? Or you're worried about a loved one and believe they need professional help? Seeking help is an important step — but from what kind of mental health professional do you need it?

Psychiatrist vs Psychologist: What's The Difference?

Psychiatrists and psychologists can both help people who are struggling with mental health issues, but their training is rather different. A psychiatrist first completes medical school, making them a medical doctor, and then goes on to specialize in mental health. Areas of specialization can include child psychiatry, substance abuse, sleep disorders, and more. A psychologist, meanwhile, will have a degree in psychology. They are able to conduct things like IQ tests and personality assessments, and primarily offer various kinds of talk therapy.

The fact that psychiatrists are medical doctors can have several advantages, such as:

  • They have the ability to prescribe medication, such as antidepressants. 
  • Some mental health symptoms can be rooted in physical causes, and a psychiatrist, being a doctor, is more likely to be able to help you reach such a discovery.
  • A psychiatrist can order lab tests as well as conduct psychological tests. 
Psychiatrists will generally be better equipped to deal with complex disorders the treatment of which requires more than talk therapy — Bipolar Disorder or schizophrenia, for instance. People who are looking for help in dealing with a difficult patch in life, hoping to process childhood trauma, or in need of counseling to deal with relationship issues are, on the other hand, often better off with a psychologist. The same can be true for people with mental health issues who believe they will benefit more from talk therapy alone that talk therapy combined with medication, such as certain people with post-traumatic stress disorder or minor depression. 

Who Needs A Psychiatrist?

Anyone who has or believes they could have a mental health condition or personality disorder in which pharmacological treatment can play a major role in treatment is best off with a psychiatrist. While psychiatrists have a slightly different focus than psychologists, also being medical doctors, they can indeed also provide talk therapy — it is an important part of their job, in fact. A good psychiatrist will focus on the whole person. 

If you need help but aren't sure whether you should see a psychologist or psychiatrist, your primary care provider is a good place to start. By describing your problems and symptoms in detail, you give your family doctor the information they need to decide who to refer you to. If, however, you make an appointment directly with a psychiatrist or psychologist, they will tell you if they believe that you would be better served by seeing "the other kind of mental health doctor". 

The most important thing is getting the help you need. If you're not sure which kind of mental health professional you need, just getting the ball rolling on seeing either a psychologist or a psychiatrist is your best bet. 

I Believe A Loved One Needs A Psychiatrist

SteadyHealth being an internationally-oriented website read by people from all over the world, we can't give you advice on the legalities in your jurisdiction, but we do know that a person needs to present a serious risk to themselves or others in order for authorities to require them to enter treatment of any kind. If you are worried that a loved one is suicidal or liable to harm other people, you will often be able to contact their family doctor or call the police to perform a welfare check. Your rights in this regard depend on whether you are the person's next of kin. 

People with loved ones with serious mental health challenges will also, often, benefit from counseling for themselves. This counseling could help you process the feelings you experience as the result of your loved one's illness or issue, and may also give you tips on how to help your loved one. For this purpose, a psychologist is usually your best bet. 

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