Psychiatry is the branch of the medical field which specializes in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. Psychiatrists are doctoral level physicians who have completed medical school, plus a multi-year residency in psychiatry in a hospital setting. As medical doctors, psychiatrists are able to prescribe medicine, and to engage in medical and physical treatments for mental disorders.
Thirty to twenty years ago, it was pretty common for a psychiatrist to practice psychotherapy, but these days it is less common. As a field, Psychiatrists have gravitated away from therapy and towards the usage of medicine as treatments of choice for treating mental illness.
Having a Psychiatrist involved in treatment planning is essential for moderate to severe forms of mental illness where the state of the art treatment protocols necessitate the use of medicines. Bipolar illness and schizophrenia are good examples. Some (not all) Psychiatrists also are expert at administering electro-convulsive shock therapy (ECT), a remarkably effective treatment of last resort for medication and therapy-resistant forms of depression and schizophrenic catatonia.
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Psychology is a broad academic, scientific and clinical discipline united by the fact that all psychologists engage in the study of mental (and often behavioral) processes. Here we limit discussion to the sub-field of Clinical Psychology – the application of psychological knowledge to the alleviation of human suffering.
Clinical Psychologists are usually doctoral level professionals having either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree requiring 5-6 years of study beyond completion of undergraduate college work, and a year long residency/internship at a clinic or hospital. The Ph.D. degree is generally granted to psychologists who have had scientific training (conducting research) in addition to training in providing therapy and assessment. The Psy.D. degree, in contrast, is granted to persons who have specialized more narrowly in becoming psychotherapists and clinical assessors.
Clinical Psychologists usually offer two skills to the healthcare marketplace. They are highly trained psychotherapists, and they are expert administrators and interpreters of psychological tests (IQ tests, personality tests, brain functioning tests, etc.). Psychologists are generally not able to prescribe medicine (exceptions to this generalization are found in the military, and in the state of New Mexico where properly trained Psychologists have been granted the ability to prescribe psychoactive medications).
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Social Workers serve the healthcare industry in two primary capacities; as patient advocates helping to connect patients to local resources, and as psychotherapists. Social Workers working in the healthcare arena are generally licensed by the state or province they work in. Prior to licensure, they have (at a minimum) completed a masters-level graduate course of study in Social Work, and an additional year or so of on-site internship where they work full time in a clinical or hospital setting under the supervision of licensed healthcare professionals.
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