Psychologist vs Psychiatrist: What’s The Difference?

It’s important to understand the differences between a psychiatrist and psychologist, especially when you’re seeking help for yourself or a loved one. Many times, you’ll find that they work together on a prescribed treatment plan for a variety of mental and emotional disorders. It’s easy to confuse these two professionals, as it seems that they do the same thing, but there are clear differences which should be noted especially when it comes to their education and treatment approaches.

The Main Differences Between A Psychologist & Psychiatrist

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What Does A Psychologist Do?

A psychologist (also referred to as a psychotherapist) is a trained mental health professional that provides people with coping mechanisms and support tools to help them manage their mental health conditions.

This is mainly achieved through talk therapy. A psychologist will study your behaviour and how you relate to people and the situations in your environment. Although psychologists have to study many years at a registered University to be able to practice therapy, they are not licensed medical doctors.

Psychology-Session-Couple Couple-In-Therapy-Session

Branches Of Psychology

There are a variety of branches a psychologist may specialise in which include the following:

  • Clinical Psychology – a branch concerned with the assessment and treatment of mental illness, abnormal behaviour, and psychiatric problems.
  • Cognitive Psychology – a branch concerned with the scientific study of the mind
  • Developmental Psychology – a branch concerned with human growth and development
  • Evolutionary Psychology – a branch dedicated to study of historical behavioural patterns and how humans evolved from them
  • Forensic Psychology – a branch dedicated to the criminal investigation investigating their mindset and motives
  • Health Psychology – a branch dedicated to the observation of how behaviour, biology and social context influences illness and health
  • Neuro Psychology – a branch dedicated to the study of how the brain and the rest of the nervous system influences a person’s behaviour.
  • Occupational Psychology – also known as industrial/organisational psychology which is a branch that studies the performance of people in their work environments
  • Social Psychology – a branch dedicated to the study of the impact of social influences on human behaviour

Conditions a Psychologist Treats

Psychologists generally treat the following conditions (but are not limited too):

  • Depression
  • Stress & Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Personality disorder
  • Grief after a significant loss
  • Behavioural problems (ADHD)
  • Relationship problems
  • Providing support to Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients
  • Supporting people who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease such as cancer
  • Supporting developmental delay in children
  • Providing support in schools and the workplace
  • Guidance for life partners & marriages
  • Provide support for role transitions such as becoming a parent, or caregiver   

Education Of A Psychologist

To practice as a psychologist in South Africa, a psychologist would need to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology at an accredited University. They also need to be registered with the HPCSA. When registering they would then choose to specialise in a specific field of psychology.

How A Psychologist Can Help You

Once a psychologist has a clear understanding of the difficulties you are having, they will then create a treatment plan to fit your specific needs. They will assess a wide range of aspects which may include mood, personality, social environment, memory, concentration and more. Treatment plans are researched- based and proven to be effective. Treatment plans may include cognitive-behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy, systems therapy, and supportive psychotherapy. Therapy may take place individually, in a group setting or couples.

  • Psychotherapy can help you understand behaviours and emotions tied to your problem area
  • Help you identify a life event that may be the cause of the problem.
  • Identifying the root cause will help you take back control of your life
  • They will provide you with healthy ways on how to address the problem
  • They will teach you how to work with yourself and others around you to minimise the impact on your life

Looking for a registered psychologist in South Africa? View our list of professionals here

What Does A Psychiatrist Do?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specialises in mental, behavioural, and emotional disorders. They may prescribe medication to assist with the treatment of diagnosed symptoms. The type of treatment prescribed is tailored to each person, as there are no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to therapy. As they are medically trained doctors, they may request lab tests to be done to include in their initial evaluation.

A psychiatrist can help people manage long-term mental health conditions, suggest lifestyle changes to help manage their symptoms, and admit them to hospital in emergency cases. A psychiatrist works with you personally but will also give the opportunity to involve loved ones for additional support. This will give family or life partners the knowledge on how to help manage their symptoms and navigate the challenges of life.

A psychiatrist may provide psychotherapy (also referred to as talking therapy) or may work in conjunction with a psychotherapist to provide you with the best possible treatment plan.

Conditions A Psychiatrist Treats

A psychiatrist can diagnose and treat a wide range of complex mental health conditions. Some psychiatrists choose to specialise in a specific field such as addictions, abnormal psychiatry, and forensic psychiatry. Treatment plans may include medication, psychotherapy, psychosocial interventions or electroconvulsive therapy(ECT),

Psychologists may treat the following conditions (but are not limited to):

  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Hallucinations
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Insomnia
  • Addiction
  • Violent behaviour
  • Severe Stress & Anxiety
  • Suicidal behaviour
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism or ADHD

Education Of A Psychiatrist

To practice as a Psychiatrist in South Africa, a psychiatrist needs to complete a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree (MBChB) at an accredited University, followed by a Masters in Medicine, specializing in Psychiatry. They also need to be registered with the HPCSA.

How A Psychiatrist Can Help You

  • Diagnose – the first step for a psychiatrist is to investigate and diagnose the health concern
  • Inform – Once they have diagnosed your condition, they should provide you with as much information about the condition and the symptoms associated with the condition.
  • Provide a treatment plan – The next step would be to provide you with different treatment plans tailored to your condition. They need to fully disclose why they recommend the treatment plan, how it works, what the side-effects may be, if there are any associated risks, how long the treatment plan is, how they will monitor the results and how much it will cost.
  • Monitor progress – Once you have accepted a treatment plan, your progress should be monitored to see if there are any results. Changes may be made to the treatment plan if there isn’t initial success.
  •  Provide support – Psychiatrist should continuously provide support during the treatment plan to ensure the success of the chosen treatment.

Looking for a registered psychiatrist in South Africa? View our list of professionals here

Tips For A Successful Journey

Starting your mental and emotional health journey can be daunting. The hardest part is taking the first step towards a better you. We have put together a few tips to help encourage you when making this important decision.

  • Communicate honestly and clearly with your health care professional
  • Attend all your scheduled appointments
  • Work with your health care professional to set realistic goals
  • Stick to your chosen treatment plan
  • Take responsibility for setbacks, and try again
  • Be patient
  • Do the work!
  • Be positive and believe in a better future


Rehabhelper is here to help you find the best professional in South Africa to support you in your journey. We have a list of trusted phycologists and psychiatrists who we can put you in direct contact with. All you have to do is leave your number and we will call you back. This service is available 24/7, 7 days a week to ensure you are supported at all times. It’s completely confidential, as we understand the seriousness of these cases. You can trust us to help you get the help that you need for yourself or a loved one.