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How Are Psychiatrists Different from Psychotherapists?



Psychiatrists are unique among doctors in that they specialize in treating the mind, not the body.

The classic image of a psychiatrist sitting in a large room full of books, legs crossed on a leather armchair, quietly taking notes on a notepad on his knee while his patient sits on a Victorian daybed (otherwise known as “the couch”), facing away from the psychiatrist and talking openly about her problems is a dated one.

Psychiatrists operated in this way about 60 years ago, when psychiatry and psychotherapy, particularly psychotherapeutic psychoanalysis, were deeply intertwined. Since then, however, psychiatry has emerged as its own highly medicalized separate practice with its own distinct set of protocols, approaches, and ethical standards.

Are Psychiatrists Also Psychotherapists? 

Although psychotherapists and psychiatrists do still share many things in common, psychiatrists are medical doctors whereas psychotherapists are not. Both get called “doctors,” but psychiatrists have MDs whereas psychotherapists have PhDs in psychology.

Some psychiatrists do still play double roles, that of the doctor and that of the psychotherapist, and both psychiatrists and psychotherapists offer one-on-one and group sessions with patients, which they schedule through online booking services like OnSched Calendar API. However, the primary duty of the psychiatrist is not to provide therapy but rather to comprehensively assess, diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate patients with mental illness as well as behavioural and emotional disorders.

Who Can Prescribe Medications? 

Psychiatrists, unlike psychotherapists, are legally permitted to prescribe psychotropic medications like antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers, and anti-psychotics to treat all sorts of mental illnesses and behavioural and emotional disorders.

However, in the United States, there has been a push to enable psychotherapists to prescribe medications.

What Conditions Do Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists Treat? 

Although only psychiatrists are permitted to prescribe patients psychotropic medications, both psychiatrists and psychotherapists treat mental illnesses as well as behavioural and emotional disorders.

The mental illnesses that psychiatrists and psychotherapists treat include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Major depressive disorder (MDD)

The behavioural and emotional disorders they treat include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Do Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists Specialize? 

Psychiatrists and psychotherapists often specialize in treating certain mental illnesses and disorders. For instance, one will specialize in treating bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, while another will specialize in treating major depression.

Whereas psychiatrists tend to dedicate more of their time to patients with mental illnesses and disorders than patients who are not diagnosed with either, psychotherapists spend time with all sorts of patients. If you don’t have a mental illness or an emotional or behavioural disorder, you can still get help from a psychiatrist or psychotherapist, but a psychotherapist is more likely to provide extended treatment.

How Do You Become a Psychiatrist or Psychotherapist?

After completing an undergraduate degree, it typically takes another nine years to become a psychiatrist: four years of medical school, followed by five years of residency training in psychiatry.

After completing an undergraduate degree, it typically takes psychotherapists another five to seven years to become psychotherapists: five to seven years to obtain a Ph.D. in psychology. (Some will do additional training in psychotherapy).

Do Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists Work Together? 

In hospitals, psychiatrists will often work with psychotherapists as part of multidisciplinary teams that treat patients with mental illnesses and behavioural and emotional disorders.

Also, psychiatrists and psychotherapists will often refer patients to each other. In many cases, patients are better off having both a psychiatrist and psychotherapist than only one of the two.

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