Writer: Lisa Quigley
Navigating the complex world of mental health professionals and support networks can be overwhelming at the best of times, nonetheless when you are struggling with mental illness. Even as someone that works in the field, it can still be confusing and intimidating, and it definitely doesn’t help that so many terms start the same. In this article, we break down the differences between psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy and their approaches to mental health. In addition, we highlight the benefits of peer support for dealing with mental health challenges.
Seeking professional support looks different for everyone and it doesn’t always mean talk therapy professionals. Many folks choose not to enter the mental health industrial complex and that must be respected. Other forms of professional support that are not talk therapy include somatic healing, medication, meditation, psychedelic experiences, exercise, workplace mental health training, calling or texting a support hotline, sharing with your friends, family, community, and more!
At Not 9 to 5, we strongly believe in the power of practical education through sharing lived experiences. We believe that lived experience holds the same validity and weight as professional knowledge, and is a lot more accessible for many of us. It is also important to note the complex relationship between many marginalized communities and medical institutions.
Regardless of the accessibility that a person may have, there may be a traumatic history that often equates to a lack of trust in the system. Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported in their mental health journey, which is why it is so important to discuss all options, not just the ones positioned in high regard by mainstream society.
So, what’s the difference?
Psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists all specialize in human behaviour and mental conditions, but they treat them in different ways.
A psychiatrist mainly looks at mental health from a biological and neurochemical level https://globalnews.ca/news/3825025/psychotherapist-psychologist-psychiatrist-difference/ . Because of this, they will often prescribe medications to address the concern alongside talk therapy. They have regular check-ins with their patients to ensure the medication and dosage is helping, and make any adjustments needed along the way if they aren’t. It can take quite some time to find the right balance of medication and dosage with the least side effects, so it is important to try to be patient and know that it is just a part of the process.
A psychologist uses a scientific viewpoint to address the concern, therefore they will focus on personal behaviours and monitor sleep, behavioural patterns, eating habits, and negative thoughts to discover what may be the cause. They may use brain health assessments in conjunction with cognitive behavioural therapy to do so.https://www.getmaple.ca/blog/2022/04/20/psychiatry-vs-psychology-vs-psychotherapy/
A psychotherapist specializes in talk therapy to help their clients gain awareness of themselves, change behaviour, increase happiness and overcome challenges. They may provide a variety of services such as creative therapies, somatic therapy, and therapy as an individual, couple, family, or group https://globalnews.ca/news/3825025/psychotherapist-psychologist-psychiatrist-difference/ . There are many different types of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, such as interpersonal, cognitive, dialectical, IFS, EMDR, and more. To read more about these types of talk therapy, click here.
Another difference is their education. They all have to go through extensive training in their respective fields, however the education varies.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors, therefore they have a degree in medicine and are able to prescribe medication. Their education is very similar to that of a family doctor, however because they choose to specialize in mental illness, they have to do an additional four years of training specifically in psychiatry. https://globalnews.ca/news/3825025/psychotherapist-psychologist-psychiatrist-difference/
Psychologists have a PhD in psychology, but they are not trained in medicine, which is why they can’t prescribe medication. They can however provide assessments, diagnoses, research and offer a variety of therapy options that focus on the behavioural and emotional causes of mental illness. They may work as researchers, or practitioners in hospitals, schools, clinics, employee assistance programs and private offices. https://www.getmaple.ca/blog/2022/04/20/psychiatry-vs-psychology-vs-psychotherapy/
Both can be psychotherapists as well. Psychotherapists can also be counsellors, social workers, and psychoanalysts, as long as they have the additional masters level training in psychotherapy to their field. They help their clients gain healthy coping techniques through mental rather than medical methods. They are not required to be licensed in most of Canada, with the exceptions being New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. Regardless of this, it is highly recommended to only see one that is licensed. https://globalnews.ca/news/3825025/psychotherapist-psychologist-psychiatrist-difference/
What do they treat?
There are many overlaps in the conditions that they all treat, and it is integral to note that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to treatment of mental illness.
A psychiatrist is very beneficial for a person that needs medication to adjust certain chemicals in their brain, or has a very serious mental illness where they cannot take care of themselves. They can treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and major depressive disorder.
A psychologist is helpful to treat neuropsychological disorders and dysfunctions such as insomnia, developmental disorders, panic and anxiety disorders, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A psychotherapist may be very beneficial for those suffering from eating disorders, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, addiction and substance use, work and relationship stress, or personality disorders.
Cost and Availability
The cost and accessibility of the practitioners also varies. Not all licensed practitioners are covered by insurance or provincial health care, and cost can vary by province as well. Many psychotherapists operate on a sliding scale to charge based on your financial situation. The wait times also vary widely by practitioner, sometimes up to a year.
Due to the cost and lack of accessibility to these practitioners for many folk, or a person’s traumatic and/or complicated relationship to institutionalized health care, peer support may be a very beneficial alternative to the mental health professionals above.
Peer support occurs when people provide knowledge, experience, emotional, social or practical help to each other. It commonly refers to an initiative consisting of trained supporters, and can take a number of forms such as one-on-one peer mentoring, group sessions, reflective listening, or counseling https://peersupportcanada.ca/ . Peer support has become increasingly popular for many reasons.
Systematic reviews have demonstrated that peer support not only performs equally to clinical practices on traditional outcomes measures such as rehospitalization or relapse, but it actually scores higher in areas related to the recovery process https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/general-psychiatry/exploring-the-value-of-peer-support-for-mental-health/ . It is because peer-support offers greater levels of self-efficacy and empowerment through social interconnectedness with others that have had similar experiences. There is an exchange of strategies to cope, and there is a mutual understanding and respect of one another in the challenges they each face in everyday life https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/general-psychiatry/exploring-the-value-of-peer-support-for-mental-health/ . Everyone is equal in peer support, which can provide a safer, more comfortable environment than being in a relational hierarchy as client and clinician.
There are so many options out there to help a person heal from mental illness. It is reassuring, but also very overwhelming. Because of this, we recommend talking to friends or family that you know have had similar experiences and ask about their mental health journey and if they have any referrals.
If you are comfortable, it is also good to keep your family doctor in the loop as an ally to update and check in with. If you aren’t, that’s okay too, because there are so many peer support groups out there to be there for you. Peer support holds just as much value, and can be as or more beneficial to recovery from mental illness as a clinical professional. Everyone’s healing journey is different, be kind to yourself as you navigate yours.
To read more about the various types of talk therapy, click here.
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