Parents of children who need support for a mental, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorder have to learn a lot of information fairly quickly. When they first learn their child has a condition or disorder that benefits from treatment, they learn everything they can about the diagnosis. Parents of kids diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) learn everything they can about depression. Parents of kids diagnosed with ADHD learn everything they can about ADHD. And parents of kids diagnosed with an alcohol or substance use disorder learn everything they can about addiction.
The next thing most parents do is learn about treatment. They research the different options available to them. They read about outpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), partial hospitalization treatment (PHP), and residential treatment (RTC). At this point, they encounter the names and titles of the people who will treat their child. They see titles for therapists, counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists.
They read the letters after the names and wonder what they all mean:
LMFT means licensed marriage and family therapist. LCSW means licensed clinical social worker. M.D. means medical doctor, and Psy.D. means doctor of psychology.
If you’re the parent of a teen in treatment, or a parent seeking treatment for your teen, people with these letters after their name might support your child either as a counselor, a coach, a therapist, or a psychiatrist.
This brings us to the purpose of this article.
If you’re like most people, you likely have a basic understanding of the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. This article will confirm what you do or don’t know, and fill you in on the rest. By the end, you should be able to offer a clear answer when someone asks you:
What’s the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?
Both Help Your Child
That’s the first thing to know. Psychiatrists and psychologists are mental health professionals whose purpose is to help your child manage the symptoms of a mental health disorder or manage recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder.
After that, it’s helpful to recognize three distinctions between psychiatrists and psychologists:
- Psychiatrists are medical doctors, whereas psychologists are not.
- Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, whereas psychologists cannot.
- While both psychiatrists and psychologists may provide psychotherapy – what people often call talk therapy – psychiatrists typically focus on pharmacological therapies (medication) and medical interventions, whereas psychologists typically focus on psychotherapy and behavioral intervention.
Those are the big picture differences.
Now, let’s get into some detail on how a psychiatrist becomes a psychiatrist and how a psychologist becomes a psychologist. First, though, we’ll clear up something many people wonder about:
Who gets to call themselves a doctor, anyway?
The answer is simple. Anyone with a medical degree (MD) or a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) has earned the right to be addressed as doctor and may use the honorific Dr. before their name. Only people who have attended medical school can use the letters MD after their name, however.
Now let’s get back to how a psychiatrist becomes a psychiatrist and a psychologist becomes a psychologist.
- Complete a four-year undergraduate degree.
- Attend and complete a four-year medical school.
- Complete a residency in psychiatry, which typically takes around four years
- Complete a four-year undergraduate degree or the equivalent.
- Complete a masters or doctoral program in psychology, or a combined masters/doctoral program in psychology, which can take from two to six years.
- Train in a post-doctoral setting in an area of specialty for at least one year, with the more complex specialties requiring two years of training or more.
As you can see, both psychiatrists and psychologists must complete a basic four-year degree, then complete additional training and education commensurate with their desired area of focus. The more complex and challenging the area of focus, the longer the additional training takes. A psychiatrist focusing on complex mental illness may train for an additional six to eight years after their initial four-year degree, while a clinical psychologist may train for an additional four to six years after their initial four-year degree.
It’s important to note here that some areas of expertise for practicing psychologists do not require doctoral-level training. For instance, a school psychologist is generally required to complete a two-to-three-year master’s level program, whereas a child psychologist (not the same as a school psychologist) or a clinical psychologist is required to complete four-to-seven-year doctoral level program or combined masters/doctoral program. That means that all psychiatrists are doctors, but all psychologists are not necessarily doctors – it depends on the amount of training they receive.
Expert Clinicians are Essential for Effective Treatment
If you’re looking for support for a teenager with a mental health and/or alcohol/substance use disorder, it’s important to make sure the clinicians working with your child have the proper licensure and accreditation. A high-quality adolescent treatment center will have a range of experts on staff. First, they should have at least one consulting or resident psychiatrist as part of their treatment team. This doctor – or doctors – can prescribe and manage medication and handle psychiatric emergencies if needed. In addition, high-quality treatment centers should have a licensed nurse on staff. Next, a high-quality treatment center should have doctoral-level, clinically trained psychologists on their clinical leadership team. These highly trained psychologists manage the day-to-day clinical treatment of your teenager. Finally, a high-quality treatment center should have masters-level therapists on staff. These include LMFTs or LCSWs (see above), who provide counseling and coaching in both group and individual settings.
What’s the Difference?
We bet you can now explain the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. If your teen needs support, that’s a good thing. It’s crucial for you to understand as much as you can about the treatment process. Knowing the people who manage the care of your teen are trained experts is important – and it’s also important for you to know about the experts a high-quality treatment should have on staff. If you’re looking for treatment and support for your teen, make sure any center you consider offers treatment provided by expert doctors, clinicians, and therapists trained in supporting adolescents. Well-trained mental health professionals can help you and your teen create a full and vibrant life that’s not defined by a diagnosis or a disorder. These professionals – whether psychiatrists or psychologists – can and do help people every day. They can help your family, too.