If you have mental health concerns, you should seek help. But where do you go? How do you know what type of doctor you should talk to? Do you look for a psychiatrist or a psychologist?
If you’re unsure what the difference is, you’re not alone. What you see on TV is not reality. There are similarities, but there are important differences, too. Here’s what you need to know to decide which is right for you.
How They’re Alike: Psychiatrists and psychologists are different types of professionals trained to help you deal with mental health issues. Both are there to get you through problems. Both Psychiatrists and Psychologists look closely at your behaviour such as not getting out of bed, your sleep patterns, eating habits, and negative thoughts that might be causing or contributing to depression for example.They aim to provide you with the means to manage the issues in your everyday life.
How They’re Different:
Education: Psychiatrists are medical doctors who graduate from 4-6 years of medical school, and then go through anywhere from 4-8 years of post graduate training in the assessment and treatment of mental health disorders depending on where they train (US = 4 years, UK = 8 years, so a total of up to 14 years of training). A doctor who graduated in the British system like we have in the Caribbean has the letters MB BS, or MB BCh or MB ChB after their name. A doctor who graduated from the American system has the letters MD after their name. They all mean the same thing: a basic medical degree. Then there may be other letters after that, for e.g. in the UK the letters MRCPsych mean that the person is a qualified Psychiatrist and CCT means they have completed their training. West Indian Psychiatrists may have the letters DM after their name, which is the local equivalent of MRCPsych.
On the other hand, psychologists have a doctorate degree in an area of psychology, which is the study of the mind and human behaviour. They are not medical doctors and so can’t prescribe medication. A psychologist can have a PhD or a PsyD in clinical or counselling psychology, for example. Typically, they have gone through 7-9 years of training in total. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are also trained in giving psychological tests (like IQ tests or personality tests). In most countries, only a person who has a doctorate degree can call themselves a psychologist.
The Approach: Psychiatrists are medical doctors and have studied the workings of the body (physiology, biochemistry) and mind (psychology) and how medications work (pharmacology). They focus on the medical side of things. They might ask you to do blood tests, or get a brain scan or to get an ECG to check your heart. For instance, before a psychiatrist calls someone depressed, they will make sure they don’t instead have a vitamin deficiency or a thyroid problem. Once they’ve excluded physical illness and they make a mental health diagnosis, psychiatrists often prescribe you medicine. People are often afraid of medications like antidepressants, However they have been proven to work and can improve your quality of life significantly. They will also advise you to make lifestyle changes to help you to help yourself (exercise, eat healthy, get good rest, don't drink too much alcohol, don't smoke etc.). Sadly most people do not listen to this advice as they don't want to take responsibility for their health!
Psychologists on the other hand are trained to practice different forms of psychotherapy (talking therapy) -- i.e. talking with their patients about their problems and using highly specialised ways to treat their problems and to give the person the tools to manage their daily problems. It is not just talking or getting advice as you would from a friend or family member, but it is a form of treatment that is equal to medication and it takes years of training to be competent. Only some psychiatrists are trained to do this in addition to their medical treatment, but not all. It depends on their training. It is important to know whether the person you are seeing is actually trained in psychotherapy before you do talking therapy. Don't be afraid to ask!
Both are highly important professionals in treating mental illness and both medication and talking therapy have been proven to work, and to work even better when combined!
For more info on this topic, check out this interview I did with a local podcast on mental health issues in T&T:
Dr James Bratt, Lead Consultant at Age Caribbean and Geriatric Psychicatrist.