Mental Health

Psychiatrists and psychologists are the two main healthcare professionals involved in the treatment of mental illness. While the treatments they offer patients overlap, their roles are distinct.

What psychiatrists and psychologists have in common

Both types of mental health professionals use talk therapy to gain psychological insight into a patient’s mental distress, and their roles are complementary. Psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, can prescribe medication, but they usually recommend that patients see a clinical psychologist as well for psychotherapy. The psychologist provides most of the life counselling and talk therapy and the two mental health professionals can liaise with one another to ensure a holistic approach to treatment.

“A psychologist’s and a psychiatrist's work overlap in that they’re trained on the same mental health conditions and use the same diagnostic criteria to diagnose and treat these mental conditions. As a result, they often work hand in hand with the same patients,” explains Zelda Buitendag, a clinical psychologist who consults at Mediclinic Limpopo in Polokwane.

How their roles differ

The main difference between the two professions is in the training they receive. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, whereas a psychologist is not.

“A psychiatrist must first get a medical degree and get some experience in other areas of medicine such as general medicine, surgery, paediatrics, and obstetrics. When they go on to specialise in psychiatry, their training in pharmacology qualifies them to prescribe medication,” explains Dr Ravi Govender, a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Cape Town. A psychiatrist usually treats conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), psychosis, anxiety disorders, and others.

A clinical psychologist must obtain a master’s degree in psychology in order to practise. Their training is focused on therapeutic approaches to mental health conditions, says Buitendag. “Psychologists work from a well-researched theoretical base. There are several schools of thought that form the basis for treatment in psychotherapy; namely psychoanalysis, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), Gestalt therapy, and humanistic therapy.” Like psychiatrists, they treat mental health conditions, but also assist with relationship issues, work stressors, bullying, and other life difficulties.

A psychologist may refer a patient to a psychiatrist if talk therapy alone isn’t working, or if their diagnosis is serious.

A patient perspective

Beth* has been in therapy for many years and sees both a psychiatrist and a psychologist to treat her depression and anxiety. “My psychiatrist monitors my medication, and my psychologist helps me understand and cope with the issues that cause my distress. I can talk to my psychiatrist, but because I see my psychologist more frequently, he has a better understanding of where I am emotionally,” she explains.

*Not her real name

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, help is available. To find a mental health professional near you, visit