According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 30% of U.S. adults said they had symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder in early 2022. That’s nearly three times the number than before the pandemic.
In fact, more than half of Americans will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Fortunately, help is available.
Although both psychologists and psychiatrist can help with mental and behavioral needs, they have different educational backgrounds and use different tools. Let’s take a quick look at the differences between the two.
What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?
The differences between psychiatrist and psychologists begins at education. Psychiatrists are either medical or osteopathic doctors (M.D.s or D.O.s) and have special training in mental health. They have degrees that typically focus on treating your mind and body.
Since they’re medical doctors, psychiatrists can diagnose and treat the mental and physical aspects of your mental health issues. They can also prescribe prescription drugs.
Psychologists, on the other hand, can diagnose and treat mental health problems, but they hold either a Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) or a Psy.D. (doctor of psychology), both of which are non-medical degrees.
Typically, psychologists treat patients through methods alternative to prescription drugs. Some of the methods psychologists may use for treatment include psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, counseling, or cognitive therapy. Psychoanalysis, sometimes called talk therapy, may be what you think of when you think of speaking with a psychologist. It helps you find what is at the root of your mental health issues and teaches you how to cope and problem-solve based on that knowledge.
Though psychologists aren’t medical doctors, some can still prescribe you medication. That’s only allowed in a few states, and psychologists must complete extra training to be able to do it.
Psychologists can also work together with your doctor (or psychiatrist) if it looks like prescription drugs would help you.
How to choose between seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist
If you aren’t sure whether a psychiatrist or psychologist will best meet your needs, your primary care physician can be a great place to start. Your doctor can do an initial assessment and help refer you to the right specialist.
Once you begin treatment, your doctor will also continue to be an important part of the team that’s looking out for both your physical and mental health.
You can also find help for a range of mental health issues through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The government agency can connect you to both treatment locators and 24/7 helplines.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts—or have a loved one who is—dial 911 (or your local emergency number), call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Is treatment from a psychologist or a psychiatrist covered by insurance?
Two key laws affect whether your health insurance policy covers mental health services. First, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), mental health and substance use disorder services are considered essential health benefits. That means most individual and small group health plans cover them.
Second, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires most health plans to apply the same rules to mental health benefits that they do to medical and surgical benefits. For example, that means you can’t face higher deductibles (the amount you pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in) or stricter yearly visit limits for mental health services than for physical health services.
This law applies to most employer-sponsored plans and individual plans, including those sold in the federal marketplace.
You can also contact a licensed insurance agent with HealthMarkets at (800) 304-3414 to discuss which health plans may cover mental health services.
But not every health plan offers the same mental health benefits.
“Every plan is different, and every plan is different per state,” says Ryan Newport, a licensed insurance agent contracted with HealthMarkets in Oklahoma City. The specific services your plan covers will be outlined in the plan’s Summary of Benefits, which should be available on the carrier’s website.
Another important consideration is whether the provider you want to see is in network. Your health plan will have a certain number of providers in your area that may cost you less than others.
“I’ve had clients switch from one [insurance company] to another for under-65 health insurance strictly because their [mental health] counselor was in [a different] network,” Newport says.
Information on provider networks should be on your insurance company’s website. But you can also get information where you get care.