Psychiatry, Psychology, Counseling: The Basic Differences

Many students seeking an online degree are confused by the difference in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. The standard dinner party saw is, "One hands out pills, the other one doesn't," but that barely touches the tip of the difference in the two practices.


Psychiatrists are physicians (individuals with a medical degree)who specialize in studying, treating, and preventing mental disorders. Their work can involve physical examinations and procedures, and treatment ranges from the administration of prescription medications to more extreme methods like electroconvulsive therapies. Treatment may be conducted on an inpatient or outpatient basis and under certain circumstances patients may be committed by a psychiatrist to a mental health facility for their own protection. Psychiatrists are differentiated from psychologists by their medical training, ability to prescribe medication, and access to medical facilities.


Psychologists are also mental health practitioners who study behavior, cognitive function, and affect. Their most widely publicized work is in delivering counseling in both clinical and private practice settings. Psychologists hold doctorates (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) in their field and are often engaged in research involving psychological testing and assessment. They do not prescribe medication (except those working with the United States military or who hold a license in New Mexico or Louisiana) and do not normally hospitalize their patients, although they may encourage their clients to enter a treatment facility for more intensive psychotherapy. Psychologists are subject to the laws of the state in which they practice and are licensed by the state. Most specialize in a given area, for instance family therapy, marriage counseling, or the treatment of specific anxieties or phobias.

Careers in Mental Health

Psychiatrist work in a medical setting and are often associated with hospitals or treatment facilities. Psychologists, on the other hand, may be employed in private practice, or may work in industry counseling employees who work in a particularly high stress environment. Both, however, required an advanced level of study that may not be availble through online venues.

A third route, that of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor, is also an option. Generally these practitioners (who are also licensed by the state) hold master's degrees in their field and have received supervised clinical experience in order to pass a state licensing exam. They, too, tend to specialize in given sub-specialties like relationship or family counseling. In general, no controlled studies have indicated a measurable difference in the effectiveness of therapists with different levels of education and license designations.