If you are experiencing excessive stress, emotional difficulties, or other mental disturbances, and you’re ready to enlist the services of a professional, you may have some confusion about where to start. Should you look for a psychologist or a psychiatrist? Is there really a difference between the two?


The answer to the first question depends on your particular needs, and the answer to the second is yes, there are some distinct differences between psychologists and psychiatrists.  There are some similarities, too. For example, both psychologists and psychiatrists are doctors of the mind. They both diagnose and treat mental health conditions. And they are both committed to the mental wellness of their patients. But they differ in a few key ways, which we’ll outline briefly below.  



To understand the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists, it’s helpful to look back at the schooling and training required for both professions. 


  • Psychologist – A psychologist is a social scientist with a doctoral degree in psychology, either by way of research (PhD) or clinical studies (PsyD). As students, psychologists study the mind and behaviors. Clinical psychologists complete a two- to three-year internship where they are trained to administer and interpret psychological testing and provide psychosocial therapy that focuses on the patient’s mind and emotions. 


  • Psychiatrist – A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD). They attend four years of medical school, where they learn the functions and systems of the body, how to examine and monitor the physical condition of patients, and how to treat medical conditions. After medical school, they attend four years of residency training where they specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders, with a focus on chemical imbalances in the brain. 


Scope of Practice

When most people ask the question about the differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, they’re talking about a particular type of psychologist: the clinical psychologist. While there are a number of different types of psychologists who practice in a range of specialty areas, such as the psychology of communities or the psychology of consumers, the clinical psychologist is most often the one referred to when comparing psychology and psychiatry. Below is a simplified breakdown of the scope of practice for clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. 


  • Clinical Psychologist – A clinical psychologist addresses the mental health of patients by way of:
    • Psychological testing
    • Interpretation of psychological testing
    • Behavioral assessment
    • Diagnosis of mental health disorders (as distinguished from medical disorders)
    • Psychotherapy to address thought patterns and behaviors
    • A range of talk therapies and behavioral techniques designed to help patients navigate life’s challenges
    • Other non-pharmacological interventions, such as hypnosis
      see our psychotherapy treatment services in San Diego


  • Psychiatrist – A psychiatrist addresses the mental health of patients by way of:
    • Medical and psychological testing
    • Evaluation of medical and psychological data
    • Diagnosis of mental health disorders
    • Psychotherapy to address thought patterns and behaviors
    • Medication to correct imbalances in brain chemistry
    • Other treatment modalities, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and deep brain stimulation (DBS)


Conditions treated

There is some overlap in the types of conditions treated by psychiatrists and psychologists. In fact, both psychiatry and psychology are often part of the treatment plan for a single individual. But in general, when a person goes to see one or the other, the psychologist will treat patients whose particular challenges can be managed with psychotherapy and other non-pharmacological interventions, while the psychiatrist will treat those with more complex conditions that require medication and other medical treatment. 


  • Psychologists typically treat people with: 
    • Behavioral problems
    • Learning difficulties
    • A history of trauma
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Eating disorders
    • Relationship troubles
    • Drug and alcohol abuse
    • Short-term difficulties such as divorce or work conflicts



Psychologists and psychiatrists often work together as part of a multidisciplinary team to create a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses patient needs from different angles.  When treating individual patients, psychiatrists and psychologists often refer each other’s services.


Do you need a psychiatrist or a psychologist? Pacific Health Systems can help. 


At Pacific Health Systems in San Diego, our team of psychiatrists and psychologists is equipped to diagnose and treat a wide range of mental health conditions, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and chemical dependency.  Our outpatient services include psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, marriage and family counseling, individual and group therapy, psychiatric evaluation, pharmacology, and more. We treat patients of all ages, and we honor most insurance carriers.  For more information about our services, or to schedule a consultation or evaluation, give us a call at 619-631-0128.