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What Is the Difference Between Psychology and Psychiatry?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat mental illness.
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  • Written By: Angela Farrer
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2014
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The difference between psychology and psychiatry concerns the focuses and methods of each discipline. Psychiatry is a medical specialty used to treat mental problems with underlying biological or neurological causes, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. Psychology entails treatment of emotional troubles through behavioral therapy that focuses on the patients' thought patterns. Another main difference between psychology and psychiatry is the required course of study for each field. Psychiatrists are normally trained medical doctors who have chosen this mental health field as their concentration, and psychologists usually have advanced graduate degrees along with licenses to practice psychotherapy according to specific guidelines.

One distinction of psychiatry is that these practitioners are licensed to prescribe certain psychiatric medications. These include antidepressants and mood stabilizers for patients diagnosed with conditions such as bipolar disorder or chronic depression. Psychiatrists are also able to test patients for abnormal brain activity due to a mental illness. Some of them refer such patients to a radiologist for brain imaging scans that may reveal these kinds of biological causes for abnormal behaviors or thought processes. This kind of medical treatment is usually combined with regular talk therapy sessions similar to those found in a psychologist's practice.

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Some people believe medication prescription is the only noticeable difference between psychology and psychiatry, but the reality is a bit more complex. Although psychology and psychiatry have similar goals of improved mental health and emotional well-being, psychology is an applied scientific discipline rather than a specific branch of medicine. It has some roots in philosophy and borrows ideas from various social sciences as well. Psychologists often focus on how patients' interactions with other people influence their various mental processes and behaviors. Unlike the medical field of psychiatry, psychology also takes a wider range of factors into account concerning some types of emotional problems.

Many psychologists examine personality, learning styles, and past experiences as they relate to these kinds of conditions that interfere with patients' daily lives. Some mental health professionals who study both psychiatry and psychology report that these disciplines involve different points of view among many practitioners. Many psychiatrists focus on definite biological causes of mental problems, while psychologists look at disturbances in cognition as causes of emotional disorders. Depending on individual mental conditions, some patients also benefit from a combination of treatments borrowed from psychology and psychiatry.

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