Psychiatry Vs. Clinical Psychology – What are the Differences?

Psychiatry is a medical specialty focused on diagnosing and treating mental health disorders using medication and other medical interventions. Clinical psychology emphasizes psychotherapy, assessment, and non-pharmacological treatments for mental health issues. Psychiatrists are medical doctors, while clinical psychologists hold doctoral degrees in psychology.

The fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology over-lap, so it’s easy to get confused in trying to distinguish between them. Here’s a guide to help sort through the confusion.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is the largest branch of psychology. It refers to the treatment of patients who are suffering from psychological problems or disorders. Treatment usually involves counseling. Most psychologists aren’t allowed to administer pharmaceuticals to patients, so they leave that job to psychiatrists.

Clinical psychology is similar to counseling psychology. The main difference is that clinical psychologists normally treat patients who suffer from more serious disorders than counseling psychologists do.

The first step in treating a patient is to assess the patient’s mental health by means of personality tests, behavioral observations, interviews, achievement tests and neuropsychological tests.

The psychologist then diagnoses the patient and designs a treatment plan, often with the aid of a psychiatrist, especially if pharmaceutical drugs are part of the treatment plan. Treatment normally includes some type of psychotherapy counseling, of which there are many types.

Schools of Thought within Clinical Psychology

There are several schools of thought concerning the theories of psychology, with many of these schools also differing in their prescribed treatment plans. Here are a few of the major schools:

The psychoanalytical school, founded by Sigmund Freud, stresses the importance of the unconscious mind and the libido. It extensively uses free association—a mental process whereby a word or phrase spontaneously calls to mind another word or phrase—to help investigate a client’s unconscious motivations.

The analytical school, founded by Carl Jung, is an offshoot of the psychoanalytic school. The analytic school separates the unconscious into two parts, the collective unconscious (which contains archetypes common to everyone) and the personal unconscious. Jung believed the psyche tends toward wholeness and contains a spiritual aspect, but he claimed there are conflicting drives within people that lead to psychological complexes.

The behavioral school stresses the importance of observing the outward behavior of patients and of re-training improper behavior by re-conditioning the patient, often through a system of rewards and punishments.

The humanistic school is based upon the ideas of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. It stresses the importance of self-actualization, creativity, self-will and human potential.

The gestalt school believes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It claims that breaking the human psyche down into small parts and analyzing them separately is akin to breaking down the letters of a word into separate parts and trying to make sense of them individually.


Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that specializes in treating patients who suffer from mental, emotional or behavioral disorders.

Perhaps the biggest difference between psychiatry and clinical psychology is that all psychiatrists go to medical school and become MDs, while psychologists don’t. Because of this, psychiatrists are able to prescribe pharmaceuticals, while most psychologists can’t.

Another difference is that psychologists are more apt to administer psychological tests than psychiatrists are. Because of the extra training clinical psychologists receive in counseling patients and because psychiatrists’ fees are also generally higher than psychologists’, clinical psychologists tend to spend more time than psychiatrists in counseling clients.

Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists who work in hospitals or mental institutions often work together in treating the same patients, with the psychologists specializing in psychotherapy counseling and the psychiatrists specializing in prescribing medications and treating any medical conditions that might accompany the mental or emotional problems.

Here is a small sampling of the many specialized branches of psychiatry:

Holistic psychiatrists believe that the body, mind and emotions are interconnected and that psychologists need to examine the total picture rather than just look at the psychiatric symptoms. Holistic psychiatrists examine a patient’s diet, physical condition, emotional health, lifestyle and mental health before recommending a treatment plan.

School psychiatrists specialize in treating students from kindergarten to college. Because many schools need to have both a mental health specialist and a physician on hand, school psychiatrists kill two birds with one stone by serving as both. School psychiatrists are trained to help students and their families with a wide variety of problems pertaining to school and family life. They are qualified to test and counsel students for drug use and are equipped to handle overdoses.

Sports psychiatrists specialize in treating athletes, helping clients with problems like drug addiction and mental blocks. Sometimes a sports psychiatrist doubles as a client’s general physician; but other times, the psychiatrist is part of a team that might include a sports psychologist, masseuse, physical trainer, physical therapist or neurologist.

Youth psychiatrists specialize in treating teenagers with problems like learning disorders, hyperactivity, language disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, bulimia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Forensic psychiatrists specialize in working within the court system or in law enforcement. Forensic psychiatrists commonly evaluate the competency of defendants to stand trial, testify in insanity pleas, advise law enforcement agents and work with patients in prisons.

Is a Psychiatrist Better Than a Clinical Psychologist?

When it comes to mental health care, choosing between a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist isn’t a matter of one being better than the other. These professionals have distinct roles and qualifications,

Selecting a career path in psychiatry or clinical psychology will be based on your personal interests, objectives, and the kind of work you envision for yourself. Let’s explore more differences between these two professions:

Education and Training

  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who undergo medical school and a psychiatry residency. If you plan to become a psychiatrist, expect an intensive medical education and training that covers both mental and physical health aspects. Psychiatrists have the ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental health disorders.
  • Clinical psychologists typically acquire a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology, along with an internship and supervised clinical work. If you find this route attractive, your focus will be on evaluating, diagnosing, and treating mental health problems through psychological techniques rather than medication.

Treatment Approach

  • Psychiatrists predominantly employ medications for treating mental health disorders. If the idea of prescribing and managing medications within a treatment plan interests you, psychiatry could be the right option. Psychiatrists might also offer psychotherapy or refer patients to other mental health professionals for therapy.
  • Clinical psychologists apply a range of psychotherapy methods, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and humanistic therapy. If you are enthusiastic about helping people comprehend and overcome mental health issues through conversation-based therapy, clinical psychology could be the better alternative. Generally, clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications, but a few U.S. states and some countries grant them limited prescription rights.

Specialization Opportunities

Both professions enable you to specialize in particular areas, including child and adolescent mental health, geriatric mental health, substance abuse, trauma, or mood and anxiety disorders. Reflect on which populations and problems are most appealing to you when making your choice.

In short, determining whether to pursue a career in psychiatry or clinical psychology will be based on your interests, educational goals, and the kind of work you aim to do within the mental health field. Allocate time to investigate both professions, interact with professionals from each field, and consider your passions and abilities before making your final choice.

Is it Harder to Become a Psychiatrist or a Clinical Psychologist?

Determining whether it is more challenging to become a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist is subjective, as the perceived difficulty of each profession depends on an individual’s aptitudes, interests, and objectives. Both career paths demand substantial education, training, and commitment.

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