Mental Health

Psychiatrists vs psychologists vs psychiatric nurses: What's the difference?

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Medically reviewed by

November 1, 2021

Deciding to seek support for your mental health can be tough, but it is an important step toward improving your health and well-being. Once you make the decision to ask for help, you may want some guidance figuring out the best place to start. For example, you may be wondering what kind of health care provider is best suited for treating mental conditions like depression and anxiety.

 

While primary care doctors often treat patients for basic mental health needs, there are also mental health clinicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental and behavioral conditions, including addictions when they are also present. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners have specific training and knowledge in helping people with a wide variety of mental health conditions, but among them there are some distinct differences. So, it’s important to understand up-front how each one can help you (and when you may need a different type of clinician).

 

Here’s what you need to know about each type of provider, so you can decide which are best for you.

 

What is a psychiatrist?

What is a psychiatrist?

 

Simply put, psychiatrists are medical doctors who focus on mental health. Like any other doctor, they went to medical school and completed a residency, but they have specific training in psychiatry, a medical field that diagnoses, treats, and prevents mental, emotional, and behavioral health disorders, including substance use disorders. You will find the letters MD or DO listed after their names.

 

A psychiatrist may be both your therapist and your doctor. Some psychiatrists practice psychotherapy (talk therapy) to help their patients with mental conditions; they also can prescribe medication and other medical treatments. Psychiatrists are experts in psychopharmacology, or how medications can affect the mind and body. This enables a psychiatrist to help patients find the most effective medicine for their unique conditions. While psychiatrists focus on mental health, as physicians, they also understand the physical aspects of emotional or behavioral health.

 

Psychiatrists may work in hospitals, clinics and in their private offices. Like other doctors, they may see patients via telehealth—an especially convenient and effective—option if you can’t find a psychiatrist in your area or you’re looking for an easier way to get the mental health treatment you need. An online psychiatrist has the same degree and medical background as an in-person doctor, so they can diagnose, conduct therapy, and prescribe medication virtually, when needed.

 

What is a psychologist?

What is a psychologist?

 

If you’re looking for an experienced, knowledgeable therapist who understands mental health (and substance use disorders), a psychologist may be a good option. Like psychiatrists, psychologists usually have advanced degrees, such as a PhD or PsyD, so they may have a “doctor” before their name. Some have a masters’ degree, often designated by MA or MS. While psychologists specialize in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, just like psychiatrists, they are not medical doctors, which means they can’t prescribe medication.

 

Instead, clinical psychologists use different forms of psychotherapy to help patients with mental conditions cope with their symptoms. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, problem solving therapy, interpersonal therapy, and analytic psychotherapy). Most psychologists are clinicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Some provide psychological testing to better identify a behavioral health condition, and others conduct psychological research and teach at colleges or universities.

 

It’s worth noting that not all therapists are psychologists. Social workers, licensed professional counselors, and marriage and family therapists also can practice talk therapy, but they do not have doctorate degrees. 

 

What is a psychiatric nurse practitioner?

What is a psychiatric nurse practitioner?

 

Psychiatrists are not your only option for getting a mental health prescription.

 

Psychiatric nurse practitioners and advanced practice psychiatric nurses, or NPs and APRNs, are advanced practice clinicians who completed graduate training that specializes in mental and substance use disorders; they also may have a master’s or doctorate degree. Like medical doctors, nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat patients in clinical or hospital settings, or via telehealth.


They focus on diagnosing and treating patients who need support with mental, emotional, or behavioral health conditions. Like psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners have an expertise in psychopharmacology, so they often work with patients to find the best medication for their symptoms or diagnosis. They also can practice online, which makes working virtually with a psychiatric NP both effective and easier to fit into your schedule.

 

Depending upon your needs, working with both a psychologist and a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner may be most beneficial for your condition.

 

If you’re ready to seek psychiatric care for your mental health, we’re here to help. Minded’s online psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners can help you find the best anxiety, depression, and insomnia medication from your home, so you can start feeling better sooner.


 

About the author

Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer focused on health and psychology. She lives with her husband and two sons in Milwaukee, WI.


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