It’s easy to assume that psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy are part of one large group, a series of interchangeable terms, similar enough in meaning to refer to pretty much the same thing. While this is true in a very broad sense – these are all fields that aim to understand the mind and treat it – the differences in the way they approach and deal with issues couldn’t be more dissimilar. You can think of these three areas as branches on the same tree, sharing common roots but ultimately very different indeed.
At its core, psychiatry is a medical field, focused on understanding mental health issues from a physical perspective. As such, psychiatrists typically work in a hospital setting and are often involved in assessing, diagnosing and investigating medical problems. Following this, they can either refer a patient to an appropriate treatment or prescribe medications such as antidepressants, mood stabilisers or anti-anxiety drugs. They can also supervise other treatments such as talking therapy.
Although treatments prescribed by psychiatrists are often effective, they will only tend to focus on targeting symptoms of a condition rather than permanently treating it. However, medication can be a good starting point on the road to recovery, and when used alongside types of therapy, can aid in long-term improvement.
Psychiatrists are best suited for dealing with conditions from a biological standpoint. For example, some kinds of depression run in the family and are linked to the production of certain chemical messengers in the brain. Drugs designed to adjust these chemicals to normal levels have a clear, demonstrable positive impact and are one of the most common kind of drugs prescribed in the UK. Usually, a psychiatrist would offer psychotherapy in combination with medication or refer to a different specialist – often a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychoanalyst.
Unlike a psychiatrist, a psychologist does not hold a medical degree, instead they primarily focus on understanding human emotion, thoughts and behaviour. To help them achieve their aims they use a range of scientific methods and tools, including lab tests, studies, surveys and interviews. Sometimes they form part of a treatment team in a care setting such as a hospital, using this knowledge to counsel patients. Psychologists cannot prescribe medication, but provide assessment and brief therapy.
There are many kinds of psychologists, each with their own research interests. Clinical psychologists are those directly involved in helping with understanding mental health issues and regularly provide assessments as well as consulting with psychiatrists and other professionals such as social carers.
Clinical psychologists tend to have a deeper insight into the less tangible aspects of the mind, understanding the emotions, thoughts and motivations of the patient. Sometimes an issue may have a root cause bedded in a traumatic event for example. Medication could mask it, but a psychologist understands that therapy is the only way to truly confront the issue at its roots. In this case, they can supervise counselling to help or recommend psychotherapy services.
Sometimes issues are formed by a complex web of causes, with threads stretching back into the early years of childhood and the darkest corners of the mind. Looking at a brain scan, hospital staff would see likely see nothing out of the ordinary, and yet, the symptoms would tell a very different story.
In these scenarios psychotherapists provide effective long-term means of understanding and overcoming these life-controlling conditions. There are differing kinds of therapy a psychotherapist can specialise in, and often they are trained extensively in a number of these. A psychotherapist can also be a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but will need separate training and certification in addition to these to provide therapy services.
In clinical studies it’s has been found that therapy has the same positive outcome as medication for certain conditions. Compared to medication, patients are far less likely to relapse once treatment stops. It’s with this in mind that the NHS recommends Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as an effective and short treatment option for depression, anxiety, PTSD and a range of other conditions.
CBT works by helping patients to better control their own thoughts and behaviours, but is by no means the only therapy shown to truly help change lives. Psychoanalytic therapy (also known as psychodynamic therapy) is yet another tool in the arsenal of psychotherapists that provides deep and long-lasting personality changes. However, there are more subtleties beyond these – and your therapist can help tailor the perfect therapy to you.
Is one better than the other?
There is no “better” choice, however, when struggling to cope with emotions, psychopharmacology might be the best start, however, it is essential to gain insights into own condition by means of psychotherapy. Everything will also depend on many variables, including the kind of issues present, family history, past experiences, existing medication and personal preference. It is important to be honest about all of these if questioned by a healthcare professional as they can help direct you towards the best treatment for you.
You can reach out directly to Psytherapy, where you’ll receive expert confidential advice on whether therapy would be the best choice for your circumstances. If you have personal experience in any of the mention fields, or simply have something to add to the discussion please add your comments below, we’d love to hear from you.