Psychiatrist vs Psychologist: What’s the Difference?

My Mirror logo
27 Apr 2023
by My Mirror Editorial Team

In the world of mental health therapy, the terms ‘psychiatrist’ vs ‘psychologist’ are often intertwined. While both types of practitioners work within mental health counselling, their approaches to therapy often differ. With more and more people seeking mental health therapy in Australia, understanding the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists can help clients find a solution that best fits their needs. 

So, what is a psychiatrist vs psychologist? And how do their treatment methods vary?

Key differences between psychiatrists and psychologists

In a nutshell, psychiatrists are doctors that specialise in medical health, while psychologists have doctoral degrees in psychology. Psychologists focus on human behaviour whereas psychiatrists centre their work around human biology. 

Psychiatrists can:

  • Prescribe medicine
  • Identify clinical disorders
  • Have medical degrees
  • Look at a client’s medical history

Psychologists can:

  • Work through people’s problems
  • Give emotional support for trauma
  • Provide referrals for medicine prescriptions
  • Look at a client holistically

Differences in treatment methods

Both psychiatrists and psychologists in Australia are specialised to understand how the human brain works, however, their different backgrounds and training mean they apply their knowledge in different ways. 

The primary treatment method that psychiatrists use with their clients is medication. Psychiatrists study human biology and pharmacology which makes them great medicine prescribers in the mental health field. Psychiatrists also work to understand the emotional needs of their clients, but they tend to look at symptoms from a clinical approach, monitoring how medication alleviates these symptoms. 

Psychologists develop treatments based on psychotherapy principles. These treatments centre around talking with a psychologist and are known as ‘talk therapy’. Despite the nickname, psychotherapy sessions are a lot more detailed than having a simple chit-chat, and it’s estimated that around 75% of people who enter psychotherapy benefit from the treatment. Types of treatment that psychologists use include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance therapy and group therapy.

Find a psychologist that can help with your specific needs with our online matching tool.

Scope of Practice

Psychologists engage with their clients on a behavioural level, establishing an effective client-therapist relationship. Their practice encompasses emotional and mental issues and works towards improving the well-being of their clients. This can range from depression and anxiety, to someone experiencing a big change in their life. Psychologists can diagnose their patients but not prescribe them.

Psychiatrists are medical practitioners and their scope of practice covers all things medical. From assessing medication dosages to evaluating which is the right form of medication for each individual person, they help their clients manage medication successfully.

Medication is one of the key differences that sets psychiatry vs psychology apart. Sometimes, psychologists and psychiatrists even work together to help treat someone who would benefit from both kinds of treatment. 

GPs are also able to provide help by giving their patients a referral letter and a Mental Health Plan so they can start their therapy journey. Mental Health Plans enable your therapy sessions to be rebated through Medicare, reducing the cost of the session. 

Which is best?

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to mental health therapy. The type of treatment is entirely dependent on the goals or problems a client wants to work through. 

Let’s run through some scenarios to see whether psychiatry vs psychology is most helpful:

Mild Anxiety

A psychologist could be a great fit for this issue. The psychologist would deliver techniques to reduce the anxiety, and the client and psychologist would work together to discover any causes of the anxiety.

Bipolar Disorder 

A combination of both psychology and psychiatry may be appropriate here. Psychiatrist-prescribed medication such as mood stabilisers is known to be successful when taken alongside CBT therapy carried out by a psychologist.

Severe Depression

Here, a psychiatrist is usually the most appropriate fit. Psychologists may refer their clients to a psychiatrist if progress would be better made through a clinical approach involving medication.

Understanding the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists can empower people to find the best solution for their mental health therapy. With 44% of the Australian population experiencing a mental health disorder at some time in their life, access to the right type of care is vital. 

If working with a psychologist might be a good fit for you and your goals, get matched with an online psychologist at My Mirror.



If you are feeling suicidal or are in crisis call 000 (AU) or use these resources to get immediate help.