What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

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People often ask about the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists. It’s easy to mix us up, especially as some psychologists have the title ‘Dr.’ before their names just like psychiatrists.

The main difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialised in psychiatry whereas psychologists have studied psychology at undergraduate and then post-graduate level.

Psychiatrists: the medical model, diagnosis and medication

In Malaysia, most psychiatrists use the ‘medical model’. This is the idea that biological abnormalities in the brain or a chemical imbalance causes mental illness and psychological distress. Psychiatrists following this model focus on finding a psychiatric diagnosis that fits with the symptoms that the patient reports. Then they try to ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ the mental illness by giving medication (psychiatric drugs). The drugs are supposed to correct the hypothesised chemical imbalances or other abnormalities in the brain.

Criticism of the medical model

The British Psychological Society and many psychiatrists find that there is no evidence for an underlying biological cause for many psychiatric diagnoses. You can read more about this debate and why we tend not to use psychiatric diagnosis here.

Psychologists: the biopsychosocial model, teaching skills and changing social factors to reduce distress

Psychologists are usually taught the ‘biopsychosocial model’. The biopsychosocial model states that distress is the result of a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors. It suggests that our experiences and distress are likely to arise out of a range of factors. The things that have happened to us, including influences on our development before, during and after birth, childhood and educational experiences, our current circumstances and responses, our brains and bodies, and how we make sense of our lives are all important.

In practice this means psychologists focus on talking therapies and teaching people new skills so that they can better their emotions and live more fulfilling lives. Psychologists may also attempt to change the social systems around us that might be causing distress.

Different types of psychologists

There are different types of psychologists who specialise in different areas (for more information click here). Here at Share Resolve our psychologists are Clinical Psychologists. We specialise in teaching individuals new skills or helping people that are directly in contact with the individuals to better support them. Some clinical psychologists work at a wider societal level, but it is more common to find Health Psychologists or Organisational Psychologists working on broader social factors. Health Psychologists may try to change government policies to support well-being whereas Organisational or Industrial psychologists try to influence businesses to improve the working environment for the benefit of employees’ well-being.

Working together and Overlapping Approaches

Despite the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists we often work together. Most psychologists recognise that diagnosis and medication is useful for some people. Similarly, most psychiatrists recognise the benefits of talking therapy and the skills that psychologists can teach people.

There are some psychiatrists who have trained in delivering these skills and talking therapies themselves. This is common in Europe and North America where psychiatrists often focus more on the biopsychosocial model than the medical model.

Clinical Psychologists are trained to give a psychiatric diagnosis if we think it would be helpful. We refer on to a psychiatrist if we think medication could be of use. Interestingly, in the USA some clinical psychologists have received additional training that allows them to prescribe medication, but this is not an option in Malaysia.

Should I see a psychologist or psychiatrist first?

At Share Resolve we would recommend that you see a psychologist before a psychiatrist. This is because we would like to have the opportunity to help before you take medication. Medication can sometimes have side effects that make it more difficult to learn and implement the skills that we believe will be most effective in helping people. Of course the psychiatrists would argue that as psychologists we are being a little biased here!

Psychiatrists would probably suggest that you try medication first to give you some relief. Then once you have learnt the skills that psychologists offer you could gradually reduce the medication you take.

If you’d like to meet a psychiatrist we have found Dr. Norharlina Bahar at Prince Court Medical Centre to be very approachable and helpful.

If you’d like to meet a psychologist please get in contact with Vivian here at Share Resolve. You can call or What’s app Vivian at 012 5089910. You can also email Vivian at Vivian@resolve.my.

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