The Differences Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychotherapist

Knowing the roles and expertise of each profession can guide you towards the most suitable path for your well-being.

Wanda Nayduk

3/24/20242 min read


Navigating the complexities of mental health can be a challenging journey, and sometimes it's beneficial to seek professional guidance. Two common types of mental health professionals you might encounter are psychiatrists and psychotherapists. While they both work in the mental health field, their roles and approaches to treatment differ significantly.

Let's explore these differences to help you better understand which might be the right fit for you.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors specialized in psychiatry, making them experts in both the medical and psychological aspects of mental health. They are trained to diagnose and treat mental health disorders using a combination of assessments specifically designed to diagnose psychiatric conditions, and are able to prescribe appropriate medications to assist with alleviating troubling symptoms associated with that particular diagnosis. Due to their medical background, they can also, conduct physical examinations, and order laboratory tests. After completing their undergraduate degree, psychiatrists undergo an additional 4 years of medical school followed by 5 years of residency training in psychiatry.

This extensive training equips them to diagnose and treat (typically with a medication regime ), a wide range of mental health/ psychiatric conditions, including diagnoses of anxiety or depression (from acute to chronic/ persistent), to more extreme disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

On the other hand, psychotherapists focus primarily on providing emotionally driven “talk therapy” and other therapeutic interventions including (but not limited to), CBT, mindfulness, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, attachment styles etc. This assists clients in exploring their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours from a much deeper/intensive perspective beyond a psychiatric diagnosis. Depending on the client’s preferences, they may even approach the therapeutic process from a more “spiritual” perspective depending on their level of training. They come from various educational backgrounds, such as psychology, occupational therapy, or social work, and may hold master's or doctoral degrees in their respective fields.

Unlike psychiatrists, psychotherapists do not prescribe medications but may work closely with psychiatrists or primary care physicians who do. In fact, psychiatrists who have patients who require more frequent visits/sessions and a much more in-depth approach to their presenting issues, often refer such individual’s for more intensive mental health support that is more time consuming (eg. an individual requesting weekly discussions of strategies to deal with stress, childhood trauma, and even insomnia). Depending on their specific approaches they have learned, they can offer individual, couples, family, and group therapy sessions, aiming to help clients understand and manage their feelings in a supportive and non-judgmental environment.

So, who should you see? If you suspect that medication might be beneficial for your mental health condition or if you have a more severe or complex disorder, a psychiatrist might be the right choice for you. They can provide comprehensive medical and psychiatric evaluation and treatment, frequently including medication management. On the other hand, if you prefer a more talk-based approach to therapy and are looking to explore and work through emotional and behavioural issues, either with, without medication provided by a medical Doctor, a psychotherapist could be the ideal option.

In conclusion, both psychiatrists and psychotherapists play crucial roles in the mental health care system, and their services can be complementary. Your mental health journey is unique, and it's essential to find the right professional who can provide the support and guidance you need. Don't hesitate to reach out and seek help—your well-being is worth it!