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Psychotherapy.co.za : Articles : Articles : Self Help : Show Entry

 The difference between psychiatrists and psychologists
Submitted By DavidvdW | Added on: 2009 August 19 | Total Visits: 49728 | Printable version

The difference between psychologists and psychiatrists

Lucille Zwemstra
An informative article detailing the differences in training and expertise of psychiatrists and psychologists

Psychology comes from the Greek "study of the mind", from “breath, spirit, soul"; and "study of". Psychology is an academic and applied discipline involving the systematic, and often scientific, study of human mental functions and behaviour. It also relies on symbolic interpretation and critical analysis. A professional theorist or practitioner of psychology is called a psychologist.

Psychologists study such phenomena as perception, cognition, emotion, personality, behaviour and interpersonal relationships. Psychological knowledge is applied to various spheres of human activity, including issues related to everyday life—such as family, education and employment—and to the treatment of mental health problems. Psychologists attempt to understand the role of mental functions in individual and social behaviour, while also exploring the underlying physiological and neurological processes.

The term psychiatry, coined by Johann Christian Reil in 1808, comes from the Greek (soul or mind) and (healer or doctor). It refers to a field of medicine focused specifically on the mind, aiming to study, prevent, and treat mental disorders in humans. It has been described as an intermediary between the world from a social context and the world from the perspective of those who are mentally ill.

Those who practice psychiatry are different than most other mental health professionals and physicians in that they must be familiar with both the social and biological sciences. This medical science discipline is interested in the operations of different organs and body systems as classified by the patient's subjective experiences and the objective physiology of the patient. Psychiatry exists to treat mental disorders. Psychiatrists are therefore medical doctors, who specialized in the field of Psychiatry, therefore treating mental illness using the biomedical approach. And, as part of their evaluation of the patient, psychiatrists are one of only a few mental health professionals who may prescribe psychiatric medication and conduct physical examinations.



In order to become a psychologist, one needs to do an undergraduate degree (usually a B.A.) with psychology as one of the majors, followed by an honours degree in psychology. Students thereafter have to go through a stringent selection process in order to be able to do a Masters degree in Psychology. Course work is followed by an internship, a year's community service and a professional board exam in which 75% or more should be obtained. This required training takes a minimum of 7 years. A psychologist further needs to be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in order to practise. A total of 8 779 professionals are currently registered with the Board.


The psychologist’s scope of practise is as follow:
Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose, and intervene with psychotherapy in order to alleviate or contain relatively serious forms of psychological distress and psychopathology, or what is commonly referred to as "abnormal" behaviour.

Counselling psychologists assist relatively well-adjusted people in dealing with normal problems of life concerning all stages and aspects of a person’s existence in order to facilitate desirable psychological adjustment, growth, and maturity.

Educational psychologists assess, diagnose and intervene with psychotherapy in order to facilitate the psychological adjustment and development of children and adolescents.

Industrial psychologists apply the principles of psychology to issues related to the work situation of relatively well-adjusted adults in order to optimise individual, group and organisational well-being.

Research psychologists address any of the above professional categories, not to render services to the public in that field, but to apply research methods and techniques in order to contribute to the knowledge base of that particular field.

If one consults a psychologist, the process will include the following:
• A clinical interview, which includes the presenting problem, a history of the problem, and the psycho-social background of the client.
• A process of psychotherapy will follow. This process will depend on the psychologist’s theoretical preference. Some models includes: cognitive- behavioural therapy, narrative, psycho-analytical etc.
• Once issues are dealt with, the psychotherapeutic intervention will be terminated, and if applicable recommendations will be made.


The Practice Code Numbering System (PCNS) of the Board of Healthcare Funders of Southern Africa (BHF) is a list of unique practice billing codes for providers (psychologists and psychiatrists) of healthcare services in South Africa. All healthcare providers who service medical scheme members are required to obtain a practice number from BHF.

Further the National Health Reference Price List (NHRPL) which is released by the Department of Health stipulates parameters for the fees of psychologists and psychiatrists. Both these professions are given a guideline as to fees for services rendered to their clients.


PsySSA is the nationally representative professional body for psychology. Recognised internationally, PsySSA is committed to the transformation and development of South African Psychology to serve the needs and interests of all South Africa’s people. PsySSA advances psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being.



A Psychiatrist must first complete a medical degree. This is usually indicated as a MBCHB or MBBCH degree. This Qualification takes six years to complete. An Internship follows that takes another year, and South African doctors are then conscripted to do a year of Community service. It takes eight years to be registered as a medical doctor in South Africa.

After this a doctor could specialize and become a "specialist". It takes another four years of study to gain the qualification to practice as a Psychiatrist. This qualification is usually indicated as a MMed Psych or a FF Psych or FCPsych. Similar to a psychologist, in order to practise a Psychiatrist must be registered with the HPCSA under the specialist register.


The medical specialty of psychiatry utilizes research in the field of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, biology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. It has generally been considered a middle ground between neurology and psychology. Unlike other physicians and neurologists, psychiatrists specialize in the doctor-patient relationship and are trained to varying extents in the use of psychotherapy and other therapeutic communication techniques.

Psychiatrists differ from psychologists in that they are physicians and the entirety of their post-graduate training is revolved around the field of medicine. Psychiatrists can therefore counsel patients, prescribe medication and conduct physical examinations.
If one consults a psychiatrist, the process will include the following:
• A psychiatric interview, which will mainly focus on the physical and biological elements of the problem. Family history will be explored to assess for any generic tendencies.
• Intervention will include psychiatric medication. Some psychiatrics are trained to do some therapeutic intervention. Thereafter follow-ups are scheduled to monitor the medication.
• This process is terminated once the client has finished his/ her time on the medication.

Practise codes and fees are regulated in the same manner as with psychologists.

The South African Society of Psychiatrists is the only professional body in South Africa that represents the interests of the majority of Psychiatrists in South Africa. SASSOP aims to promote, maintain and protect the honour and interests of the discipline of Psychiatry as a medical profession, and to serve the community.

In summary a psychologist has an under – and postgraduate degree in the social sciences, a psychiatrist has a medical degree. A psychologist engages in a therapist – client relationship while a psychiatrist generally adopts a doctor –patient relationship.

A psychologist engages in psychotherapy while a psychiatrist, while legally able to offer psychotherapy either supplements it with psychiatric medication or focusses primarly on the treatment of dosirders using medication.

Although this article highlights the differences between a psychologist and psychiatrist, these two professions often work collaboratively. Within a bio-psycho-social framework, both these professionals are often necessary in effectively treating a client. Research has shown that treating certain disorders with medication and psychotherapy holds the most effective results for long term management of these disorders.

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