Psychiatry vs psychology
Mental health is an increasingly important topic in many countries around the world, and the US is no different. As the stigma surrounding the topic continues to fade and the discussion around mental health becomes more prevalent, it makes sense that treatment opportunities would expand. Before patients can find the right doctor, however, they must first understand the difference between psychology and psychiatry.
What steps do aspiring psychiatric nurse practitioners need to take to thrive in the workplace, and are their duties different from nurses working with psychologists? This article examines the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists and what it means to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
What is psychology?
Psychology is the study of behavior, emotions, and the mind. It has evolved from its origins as a branch of philosophy into its own field. Today’s psychologists study the social and cognitive factors influencing people’s actions and reactions. These professionals also work directly with patients to help them improve their mental health and heal from trauma using therapeutic techniques.
Psychologists help patients learn more about themselves and the way outside factors influence their behavior. They do not necessarily treat mental illnesses medically as much as they work with patients to learn healthy coping mechanisms. Through these mechanisms, the hope is that patients can change their perspectives and behaviors to improve their health without medical interference.
What is psychiatry?
Psychiatry is a branch of medicine and focuses on the treatment, diagnosis, and prevention of a wide variety of mental health disorders. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists offer medical care. Their goal is to approach mental health struggles from a medical perspective rather than a purely behavioral one.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors. They attend medical school and go through all the same certification requirements other doctors must complete before they can practice. Unlike psychology, where sometimes the same therapeutic techniques can be used to help patients with wildly disparate problems, psychiatry is an incredibly complex field. Medication that works for one mental illness might be devastating for another, and even among patients with the same illness, the medications used might vary widely.
Because of this complexity, psychiatrists tend to treat a narrow portion of mental illnesses that they specialize in. Some psychiatrists address mood disorders, for example, while others focus on addiction. Psychiatrists sometimes split their expertise into age groups too, with some specializing in adolescent mental health and nothing else. These dividers allow professional psychiatrists to understand the mental health disorders in question inside and out, allowing them to provide their patients with the best care possible.
What are the main differences between psychology and psychiatry?
The terms ‘psychology’ and ‘psychiatry’ are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. In fact, they differ significantly from each other, and the better option depends on the specific needs of the patient as well as the cause of their mental health struggles. If a patient is struggling with low self-esteem or motivation, for example, a psychologist might be able to help them adopt more productive habits to improve their everyday life. On the other hand, if there is no obvious cause for mental health struggles, working with a psychiatrist can help address the chemical imbalances that may be the cause of some types of mental disorders.
There are also some key differences between psychologists and psychiatrists in how they interact with their patients.
Education and training
One of the biggest differences between psychologists and psychiatrists is their education. Psychiatrists are medical doctors and must complete a medical degree (MD or DO) before they can begin practicing. This traditional four-year degree is completed after an undergraduate degree in a relevant field and is followed by a four-year training program in the field. During this time, aspiring psychiatrists receive more detailed and specialized training in treating and diagnosing mental health disorders.
Psychologists are not medical doctors. On the contrary, their only option to become a doctor is by completing a doctoral degree, which does not provide them with the medical training required to become a medical doctor. That does not mean that psychologists are less important than psychiatrists, but rather that they serve a different purpose. Instead of focusing on medical training to diagnose and treat mental health issues, they prioritize research, counseling techniques, and psychological testing techniques, in addition to various therapies.
Medical vs non-medical approach
Another big difference between psychologists and psychiatrists is the way they approach the treatment of mental illness. Generally, only psychiatrists are trained to medically treat mental health conditions with medication. They are allowed to prescribe drugs as well as other medical interventions and often use medication management when treating mental health concerns.
Psychologists, on the other hand, are not medical doctors and do not have the ability to prescribe medications. Instead, they approach mental health from a more therapeutic and behavioral-based standpoint. They provide counseling, psychological assessments, and a variety of other behavioral interventions to help clients manage their mental health concerns. Their focus is on making lifestyle changes that improve mental health, often without involving medication at all.
Scope of practice
Because they are medical doctors, can prescribe medication, and have the advanced training needed to diagnose and treat mental health issues, psychiatrists often work with patients living with more severe or complex disorders. They rarely work with patients who don’t need medication or who can benefit most from in-depth counseling (although they are certainly allowed to). Psychologists, on the other hand, do better with less severe forms of mental illness. They offer therapy and counseling, as well as psychological assessments, to their patients.
In general, psychiatrists work in hospitals, clinics, and private practices, among others. Psychologists work primarily in private practices, schools, universities, research institutions, and corporations.
Psychologists and psychiatrists offer complementary services. Neither can be considered a true one-stop shop for mental health treatment, but between the two of them, they offer comprehensive care options. For this reason, psychiatrists and psychologists often work together to provide patients with the best help possible.
What does a specialization in psychiatric nursing look like?
A specialization in psychiatric nursing involves developing the knowledge base and skills necessary to provide care and support to patients with mental health issues. This is significantly different from general practicing registered nurses, who do not focus solely on one area of healthcare but rather learn generalized knowledge that allows them to shift departments and patients as needed. A psychiatric nurse will work in settings such as psychiatric hospitals, mental health clinics, community mental health centers, correctional facilities, and general healthcare settings.
Here are some of the things aspiring psychiatric nurses should know as they pursue a first-class education.
Education and training
Most psychiatric nurses continue their education beyond a registered nursing (RN) degree to acquire specialized knowledge of certain mental health struggles. An RN to MSN psychiatric nurse practitioner program, for example, offers a pathway from a general registered nurse to a specialized nurse practitioner with extensive knowledge of psychiatric conditions and treatment methods. Universities like Marymount University offer carefully crafted programs designed to give aspiring psychiatric nurses the skills they need to thrive in the workplace.
Coursework and curriculum
Psychiatric nurses typically begin with coursework designed to give them general information about a wide variety of mental health issues. If a nurse already has a specialization in mind, they can also focus their graduate coursework on learning as much specialized knowledge and the required skills as possible. Some of the topics nurses can expect to learn about as an aspiring psychiatric nurse practitioner include:
- Psychiatric disorders
- Mental health assessments
- Psychotherapeutic interventions
- Evidence-based best practices for mental health care
A big part of the education nurses receive will include learning about how to implement, develop, and revise individualized care plans.
Once the nurses have acquired more specialized knowledge, they will need to find a clinical practicum in their area of choice. The university can generally help students find a relevant practicum where they will work directly with patients with mental health disorders under the supervision of experienced mental health professionals. This is where they will learn how to conduct mental health assessments, provide patients with counseling, administer psychiatric medications, and manage complex mental health issues.
Scope of practice
Psychiatric nurse practitioners play an important role in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health disorders. In some states, they serve as a primary mental healthcare provider, with a job role that includes prescribing and monitoring medications. In most states, they collaborate with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other medical representatives to develop and implement comprehensive treatment plans. Psychiatric nurse practitioners also sometimes provide counseling, support, and education to promote mental health and overall wellbeing.
There are many different specialization options available for psychiatric nurse practitioners. Some of these focus areas include:
- Child and adolescent psychiatric care
- Geriatric psychiatric care
- Substance abuse care
- Forensic psychiatry
While psychiatric nurse practitioners have a lot of control over their patients’ diagnoses and treatment plans, sometimes patients with severe mental health crises will be transferred to the care of a licensed psychiatrist. Sometimes psychiatrists are simply better prepared to handle extremely complex and potentially volatile situations. However, that does not mean that a psychiatric nurse practitioner will never deal with these issues, so nurses should make sure they are comfortable with this kind of difficult situation before they decide to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
What does a specialization in psychological nursing look like?
Interestingly, psychologists don’t usually have nurses with a specialization in psychology. When they need to work with nursing professionals, they typically need help from more general RNs. If a nurse is interested in psychology and wants to learn more about how they can collaborate with psychologists once they are licensed and ready to practice, they should speak with their academic advisor early on in their university studies. They can typically help nurses connect with people in the field who can provide more detailed information.
Is it necessary to specialize in psychiatric nursing?
There are a lot of reasons why specializing in psychiatric nursing might be the right choice. Nurses can ask themselves, ‘do I like the idea of making an invaluable difference in the lives of patients?’ For many people, proper mental health treatment can transform their life. The psychiatric nurse might be the catalyst for a positive change that allows patients to take a bigger role in society. Another reason to consider psychiatric nursing is the possibility to pursue interests. For example, if a nurse is primarily interested in working with older adults, they will have the opportunity to make this age group their focus.
Just as there are many reasons to pursue psychiatric nursing, there are a few things to keep in mind before making that decision. First, nurses must be comfortable around patients with mental health disorders. That might sound like an obvious requirement, but many people who love the idea of helping other people find it difficult to interact with extremely mentally ill patients. Nurses must also be prepared to work closely with many different professionals in other fields. Once part of a care team, all members must work together to provide patients with the best care possible.
The possibility of working in psychiatric nursing is an appealing one for many nurses. There are many reasons to consider the career, but nurses should make sure that they have a great university lined up before they take the plunge.