Psychologist or Psychiatrist?

I have been frequently asked on what the difference is, between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. So I thought I might just as well share what I know.

To put it simply:

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who treats the brain, as mental illness is a result of neurobiological imbalance.

A psychologist is a therapist who treats the mind, and works through socio-emotional challenges together with their client.

Both are equally important in supporting your journey towards recovery.

Healing Your Brain

Aside from differences in academic training, psychiatrists are tasked with the role of examining brain function, particularly the biochemical aspects. They trained to prescribe medication to their patients, much like how a specialist doctor does.

Monitoring, assessing, prescribing and adjusting of medications form the bulk of what they do.

Based on blood tests and what you tell them about your family history, psychiatrists typically work with an endocrinologist to identify and analyse the current baseline in your biological chemistry – neurotransmitter activity, hormone production, thyroid function etc. Any imbalance (under- or over-production) of the brain chemical is deemed a neurobiological illness.

Based on the symptoms of the illness, the psychiatrist will then prescribe a family of medications, determine dosages, and monitor its efficacy. Typically, you’d be started on a very low initial dose for one to two weeks. If no side effects are observed, the psychiatrist will then adjust dosage in small increments up to an optimal amount suited for your condition.

Consultation with psychiatrists are often brief, lasting from 10-20min. During these sessions, they obtain your feedback on the medication and make observations on your progress.

While a psychiatrist is equipped with counselling techniques, most do not go in-depth discussions on coping techniques. That job belongs to the psychologist, whose services will greatly complement and sustain your recovery plan.

Healing Your Mind

Psychologists go by a number of terms – consultant, counsellor, therapist or psychotherapist. “Counsellor” is a generic term, so not all counsellors are psychologists due to differences in training, but all psychologists function as counsellors.

Psychologists are not licensed to prescribe medication. Instead, they administer psychological therapy, or psychotherapy, which focuses on the mind and its inner workings. Psychotherapy is also known as “talk therapy”.

At this juncture, you might be wondering – well, since it’s just “talking”, I might as well just talk to my best friend or family member.

While confiding in a loved one certainly helps alleviate the stress you’re dealing with, a professional counsellor or psychologist will be able to bring you to that next level, possibly in a shorter time frame.

This is because they have adequate experience in working with a range of emotional, social and mental challenges in a variety of settings, treating people from different walks of life. They are also specifically trained to watch for signs and indications that most people miss.

During therapy sessions, which last usually 45min to an hour, the psychologist will do more listening than talking, with the goal of equipping you with effective strategies for dealing with life’s challenges.

Psychotherapy sessions also lend insight into the “inner dialogue” that happens in our minds automatically on a subconscious level. In Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), this is known as “automatic thought” which form your core beliefs – mental filters that influence your worldview.

Psychotherapy is not only for the mentally unwell, but are also suited for individuals who need extra support in dealing with stressful situations. These therapies enable their clients to live effectively and enjoy better quality of life.

Finding a Good Fit

There is no one-size-fits-all. Some medications might work on others, but not on you. Some therapy techniques and thought strategies might be empowering for you, but may not be so for someone else.

Each person’s biological makeup, biography and personality are different, and require a customised treatment plan.

However, the good news is that medical science and research is vastly improving and progressive in nature, so there are plenty of alternatives available for you. The key thing is to communicate to your recovery team on what works and what doesn’t.

Selecting Your Recovery Team

A good psychiatrist will listen to your concerns, pacing the adjustments of medication, keep a keen eye on your progress and be familiar with the effects of medication. They should also be up to the date with the latest medicinal findings.

Finding a good psychologist, on the other hand, isn’t as straightforward. In a way, it is like a search for a best friend who happens to be a trained professional in the art of listening.

Interpersonal chemistry is a vital factor to the success of any therapeutic relationship, therefore the psychologist needs to be someone you deem trustworthy, understanding, patient, practical and empathetic. A good therapist will seek to clarify, instead of analysing based on assumption, and not judge you.

I hope this has been helpful! Remember, a good recovery team will recognise that it’s about making progress at your pace, not theirs.

If you have a recovery journey to share with us, why not write in to us? Email us at

Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and Silver Ribbon Singapore (SRS) offer free counselling services.

Other mental health agencies like are listed on our Help Resources page (click here).


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