Media Needs to Understand Differences Between Psychologists and Psychiatrists

04 Sep 2014 11:07 AM | SSCP Webmaster (Administrator)

                One impediment to the promotion of psychological science is the fact that many members of the general public appear not to know the difference between psychologists and other mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, or perhaps even know that such a difference exists.  For example, in a survey of over 1000 Americans sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologist Rhea Faberman found that large percentages of laypersons “cannot tell one mental health professional from another.”  Similarly, a 1994 survey by University of Northern Iowa psychologist Jane Wong revealed that only half of a sample of 286 college students and staff felt that they could distinguish among psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts.  This “role diffusion,” as it has been called, makes it difficult for the public and policy-makers to appreciate the distinctive scientific contributions of clinical psychology. 

Specifically, in contrast to psychiatrists and most mental health professionals, doctoral-level clinical psychologists, including all of those with Ph.D. degrees and many of those with Psy.D. degrees, are trained explicitly to design, conduct, and interpret research.  In addition, most doctoral-level psychologists acquire extensive training in the science and practice of psychological assessment, including intellectual, neuropsychological, and personality testing.  Ideally, clinical psychologists also use evidence-based therapeutic and assessment methods in their clinical practice, supervision and consultation.  These differences can be important to current and would-be consumers of psychotherapy.  Because they are formally trained in research, well trained doctoral-level psychologists are in an ideal position to evaluate the scientific evidence-base for psychological treatments, and to distinguish well-supported from poorly supported treatments. 

                  The latest example of the confusion between psychologists and psychiatrists can be found in an August 25th, 2014 article in the Washington Post’s Health and Science section entitled, “When psychiatrists are on Facebook, their patients can get a case of TMI,” authored by staff writer Steven Petrow (  The article describes some of the potential hazards of psychotherapists’ casual use of Facebook and other social media, including a diminution of their credibility and a blurring of therapeutic boundaries.  Ironically, although the article focuses largely on psychologists, and even includes advice from psychologist Stephen Behnke, Director of the APA Ethics Office, the article’s title refers only to psychiatrists, implying to readers that most or all psychotherapists are psychiatrists (psychiatrists, in contrast to doctoral-level psychologists receive an M.D.).  In fact, psychiatrists comprise only a small minority of psychotherapists, and recent data suggest that decreasing percentages of psychiatrists are supplying psychotherapy (as opposed to prescribing medication) to most of their patients. These data may be relevant to mental health consumers, because research evidence demonstrates that for a number of psychological conditions, including major depression, the addition of psychotherapy to medication yields substantial boosts in long-term improvement.

The public’s confusion between psychologists and psychiatrists probably stems in part from misleading coverage by the entertainment media.  For example, a content analysis published in 1997 by psychologist Kisten von Sydow and psychiatrist Christian Reimer, both of the University of Hamberg, demonstrated that many popular films refer to psychologists and psychiatrists interchangeably, or muddy the boundaries between psychologists and psychiatrists by depicting the former individuals as prescribing medication.  Furthermore, in a 1999 review, psychologists Richard Bischoff of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Annette Reiter of Marriage of Family Counseling of Pinellas in St. Petersburg, Florida reported that only 6% of psychotherapists in movies are identified as psychologists, with most described as psychiatrists or other physicians.

Regrettably, the recent Washington Post headline only fuels this confusion.  We urge health and science writers and editors to familiarize themselves with the key differences between psychologists and other mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, and to better understand the distinctive contributions that scientifically trained clinical psychologists can provide in their research, practice, and teaching.  The following resources are a helpful start in this regard:


Written by the Public Education and Media Relations Committee of the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology

Committee members: Scott Lilienfeld (Chair), Mitch Prinstein, Joye Anestis, Michael Anestis, Kristy Benoit, Rosanna Breaux, Gerald Davison, Todd Finnerty, Dean McKay, Shari Steinman, David Tolin, Kristin Weinzierl

SSCP is Section III of Division 12 of the American Psychological Association (APA), and an organizational affiliate of the Association of Psychological Science (APS), but we are writing on behalf of SSCP, not APA or APS.