• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

Should I see a psychiatrist or a psychologist?

Differences between psychiatrists and psychologists
Are you looking for medication or talk therapy?

There’s a lot of confusion about what psychiatrist and what psychologists do. Every week I get at least one call asking if I can prescribe medication and unfortunately, I cannot. In the beginning of the mental health profession, there was no distinction, because psychiatry was invented by a medical doctor, Sigmund Freud. Over time, however, the functions and duties have become separate. I would like to help clarify some of the differences.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training in psychiatry, namely treatment of diseases of the mind. Some psychiatrists still spend time talking to their patients at length about life’s problems and how to cope with them better. However, for whatever reason, they have a lot less time now, especially since managed care has become such a prevalent force in the mental health field.

Time is of the essence

Unfortunately, their time has become more and more valuable and a lot of times they are in a hurry to treat as many people as possible. At is not their fault; it’s just how it is and a lot of communities. As a result, people sometimes go to psychiatrists and feel offended and hurt that the psychiatrist can’t spend a lot of time listening to their problems. Sometimes people didn’t want medication in the first place and were hoping to be heard and understood. This doesn’t mean that psychiatrists cannot hear and understand people. However, their focus is mostly on how the person is doing physically with their mental health condition.

Psychiatrists spend most of the time evaluating the symptoms presented to them and how medication can address their symptoms. These doctors can be true lifesavers if a person has a mental health condition that lends itself to medication. For instance, severe depression and bipolar disorder often require medication in order for the person to fully heal. Similarly, psychotic disorders like Schizophrenia require medication in order to have a productive, happy life.

Others Who Can Prescribe

Some people get antidepressant and anxiety medication from their general medical doctors or other physicians. In addition, there are some mental health professionals, including psychologists, who can prescribe medication. However, they have to have specialized training to prescribe in addition to their regular education and training. Nurse practitioners, for example, can sometimes prescribe if they have psychiatric training. I am not one of those practitioners.


Psychologists are experts in psychology. There are many different types. For instance, forensic psychologists work in the law and criminal justice capacities. They do evaluations, psychological testing, and write reports about their findings, as well as testify in court cases. Health psychologists specialize in helping people with medical conditions and do research on different topics, such as the role of stress and different diseases on mental processes. Clinical psychologists treat emotional and psychological illness by using psychotherapy and often work in conjunction with psychiatrists. This is what I do mostly, and I am very grateful to have the ability to collaborate with medical professionals when there are complex cases of mental disturbance. I can help you understand how medications affect your body, to some degree. Yet without the medical training and education, the information I offer is somewhat limited compared to a psychiatrist.

To Medicate or Not?

Not everyone who sees a psychologist needs medication or wants medication. Some want to try psychotherapy before resorting to medication, for instance. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding often want to wait until they are no longer breast-feeding to try medication. I respect the desires and needs of the patient. I realize that each person's needs and wants are unique to them. However, in cases where severe mental illness is present, I strongly recommend that people at least be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

What if I Want to do my Own Thing?

There are also things that people can do to help themselves feel better that don’t involve medication or talk therapy, and I encourage people to take care themselves as much is possible in order to be empowered and have a full, healthy life. For example, exercise can be and honestly helpful for depression and anxiety. Changing one's nutritional intake can also help change the way their brains work as well. Taking medication is not incompatible with exercise, meditation, yoga, good nutrition, or any other non-pharmacological interventions. However, if you choose to take the herbs or supplements, I highly recommend checking with a medical doctor to make sure they do not interfere with your medication. I urge this whether your medications are psychiatric or for physical illness.

I hope this clears up some of the common misconceptions about what I do versus what a psychiatrist does. We still have a long way to educate the general public about how each can help people with emotional and psychiatric illness. However, hopefully this is a step in the right direction. If you want talk therapy, clinical hypnosis, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, please give me a call to see whether I can help you achieve your mental health goals.

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