The work of psychologists and psychiatrists often overlaps, but there are some important differences in training and special skills. The most immediate difference that many people are unaware of is that psychologists go to graduate school for training and receive a Ph.D. or Psy.D. doctoral degree while psychiatrists go to medical school and receive an M.D. Psychiatrists, as medical doctors, can prescribe medications for psychological distress, whereas psychologists do not prescribe medications, instead focusing their treatment on psychotherapy and other behavioral interventions. In addition, psychologists are the only mental health professionals who are fully trained and qualified to use psychological tests (see below). These are the most basic differences. Below is additional information to help clarify the unique training and skills of psychologists.
In order to become a psychologist, a person must first complete their undergraduate college degree and then go to graduate school to obtain a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Graduate school training can last anywhere from 4 to 6 years and is followed by one or two years of internship or “residency” training, often at a site away from the graduate university. After residency, most states require an additional 1 to 2 years of supervised work experience before the individual qualifies for licensure.
Graduate school is different from medical school. Instead of focusing on training in general medicine, graduate school provides intensive training in psychological theory, therapy, research, and diagnostic testing. Typically, psychiatrists specialize in psychiatry during residencies after medical school.
The education of psychologists provides an in-depth knowledge of psychological and emotional problems, personality, and human development, integrated with specialized training in how to apply this knowledge to helping people with emotional distress and other problems in living. The psychologist’s training in research allows them to evaluate the best ways to help people and to make “evidence-based” decisions regarding what helps and what doesn’t help different people with various situations.
Psychologists also specialize in psychological testing. Psychological tests are used in situations where there are questions about what a person’s particular problem is. For example, a psychologist may use a battery of psychological tests to determine whether a child has an Attention Deficit Disorder or if the child is instead depressed or has a learning disorder (which can often look confusingly similar to ADD). Psychologists also use psychological tests in legal cases, custody decisions, guardianship and competency decisions, or any time there is uncertainty about what is troubling an individual. Psychological tests can include assessments of personality styles, tests of emotional well-being, intellectual (or “IQ”) tests, tests of academic achievement, tests for possible brain damage, and tests for specific psychological disturbances and their severity.
The use of psychological tests requires years of training that involves not only learning how to give the tests, but also how to integrate all the information from a variety of tests, background information, interviews, and knowledge of theories, research, psychological problems, personalities, and human development. Psychologists are the only mental health professionals who are fully trained and qualified to use psychological tests.
The title “psychologist” can only be used by someone who has gone through the training described above and has then passed a national licensing test and has gained specific approval for licensure in their home state (or any state in which they do psychological work). In Wyoming, as in most states, a person must be licensed by the State Board of Psychology in order to call themselves a “psychologist.” Informally, a psychologist may sometimes be referred to as a “therapist,” “counselor,” or “clinician.” However, these are more general terms that can also be used by people who are not formally trained and licensed psychologists. In other words, a “therapist” could be a psychologist, or the term could refer to a social worker, psychiatrist, licensed professional counselor, or any other mental health worker. For someone who is looking to work with a therapist, it is acceptable, even recommended, to find out about the therapist’s training and to clarify their exact title (psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, etc.) and licensure status.
It is important for consumers to be aware that there can be broad differences in training and philosophy among psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other therapists which can often lead to widely differing treatment approaches and understandings of psychological or emotional problems. For people beginning therapy, it is important to clarify their expectations (often people aren’t sure what to expect!) and to talk with the therapist about the therapeutic process.