Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and Social Workers share much in common: all are considered clinicians, therapists, or mental health professionals who provide direct services to people who are experiencing mental, emotional, or behavioral challenges. All are qualified to diagnose mental disorders, personality disorders, behavioral disorders, and emotional disorders. And all are guided by codes of ethical conduct in order to ensure they provide effective services in a respectful, appropriate, and human manner. Additionally, Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and Social Workers often work together, on collaborative teams treating the same clients within the same setting.
So, what is the difference between these professional roles, and do these differences matter? The answer is yes, there are differences between Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and Social Workers, that may be of great importance to those interested in pursuing a career in mental health services. These differences also matter for the people who are seeking treatment, as the services offered by Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and Social Workers do vary in sometimes subtle but significant ways. This brief overview is meant to help aspiring mental health professionals differentiate between the distinct, but related, fields of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Social Work in order to better determine which career path they’d like to follow.
As defined by the American Psychiatry Association (APA), the field of psychiatry is the “branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.” Accordingly, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D. or D.O.), who completes educational studies and training like any other doctor in the United States, with a specialization in mental health. As the APA continues, “Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.”
Notably, as medical doctors, psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications to their patients, such as antidepressants or antipsychotics, that aid in the treatment of psychological problems. Psychologists and Social Workers are not able to prescribe medications, thus they often work with psychiatrists when clients are in need of or interested in the use of medications as part of their treatment plan.
Not surprisingly, psychiatrists tend to work in medical settings. Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Psychiatrists are most often employed in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, outpatient care centers, physicians’ offices, offices of other health practitioners, and general medical and surgical hospitals. For those interested in undergoing medical training and education and working in the medical field with a focus on disorders of the mind, psychiatry is likely the right career path to choose.
The American Psychology Association (APA) defines psychology as “the study of the mind and behavior,” and Psychologists as people who “have a doctoral degree in psychology from an organized, sequential program in a regionally accredited university or professional school.” Thus, Psychologists do not receive medical education and training, but must attain a PhD. Psychologists, like psychiatrists, focus on the mind and human behavior, with the aim of understanding human behavior, using what they’ve learned to help improve behavioral and psychological functioning.
Psychologists draw on a number of guiding theoretical frameworks from past and current psychological research, such as cognitive-behavioral theories, psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories, and theories of human development. There are various specializations within the field of psychology, including clinical psychology (assessing, diagnosing, and treating emotional and behavioral problems), forensic psychology (applying psychological principles to the legal and criminal justice environment), and school psychologists (focusing on education and developmental disorders and learning disabilities). They often conduct research, and/or provide direct therapeutic services to individuals seeking professional help with a focus on their mental and emotional state.
Psychologists work in a variety of settings, often depending on their specialization. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists are most often employed in elementary and secondary schools, followed by private practice (self-employed), ambulatory healthcare services, government, and hospitals. For those interested in studying or providing specialized services related to the mental causes of people’s problems, a career in Psychology may be the right choice.
The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) provides the following global definition of social work: “a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.” The IFSW continues: “Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.” Notable in this definition is the focus on social justice, interdisciplinarity, and social transformation in addressing human problems and promoting human well-being. This is mirrored in the National Association of Social Worker’s preamble to the Code of Ethics, which states: “A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society.”
The educational path for social workers can begin at the undergraduate level with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. The Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is considered the terminal degree for the social work field. However, those who wish to continue to advance in their studies can pursue a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW), which is an advanced practice-based option, or a Doctoral degree (PhD) in Social Work, which is an advanced research-based option. The BSW and MSW degree must be from an institution accredited by the Council of Social Work Educators, and once the degree is completed, graduates must pursue the appropriate level of licensure in their state/region in order to lawfully practice Social Work.
Social workers draw on many of the same guiding theoretical frameworks used in psychology, however, while psychologists focus more narrowly on issues of the mind, social workers use a systems perspective to evaluate the social, environmental, and political systems that impact mental health and human behavior. Employing a strengths-based approach to clinical and community practice, social workers engage clients (individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities) “to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs.” There are a number of specializations and focus areas available to social workers including clinical practice, community practice, criminal justice, health/medical social work, or a specialization in a particular issue or population (i.e. substance abuse, immigrants and refugees, etc).
As the Bureau of Labor Statistics reflects, social workers have a variety of career options through employment in a number of different settings. These include “mental health clinics, schools, child welfare and human service agencies, hospitals, settlement houses, community development corporations, and private practices.” Social workers may also be employed as researchers, policy analysts, and educators, and bring a commitment to “promote social justice and social change” to any position. Thus, for those interested in contributing to social change and working to promote the well being of the most vulnerable populations, Social Work may prove the perfect choice of career path.