What Is a Psychology Doctor?

Female psychologist listening to patients
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Often when people use the term doctor, what they're referring to is a Doctor of Medicine, or M.D. Technically, though, anyone who possesses a doctoral-level degree is referred to as a doctor, including psychologists who will generally have either a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). So, in that sense, they are indeed doctors—not ones attending medical school.

It's also important to note that, in some states, masters-level graduates are allowed to provide psychotherapy and psychological assessment under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist. So, if working with a mental health professional who has a doctoral-level degree is important to you, be sure to inquire about the specifics of their education.

Training for Psychologists

Licensed psychologists have a Ph.D., Psy.D., or EdD. degree, which is one of the highest levels of education. Training begins by earning a bachelor's degree, followed by an average of seven years of additional training and education.

Graduate training for psychologists includes a supervised internship as well as a year of supervised practice before gaining licensure. In order to become a licensed psychologist, professionals must also pass state and national examinations.

Most Psychologists Cannot Prescribe Medications

While psychologists are doctors, they cannot prescribe and administer medical treatments for depression, such as medications or procedures like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

A psychologist primarily works in one of two areas: psychological research and administration or working with patients through counseling and/or psychotherapy.

Counseling tends to be a short-term type of intervention aimed at helping the patient work through their problems. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, involves working with the patient on a long-term basis to delve into their thought processes and way of being in the world in order to determine why they are experiencing the problems they are and how to better cope with them.

Although psychologists usually cannot prescribe medications, there are some exceptions to this rule.

Certain entities including the states of Illinois, New Mexico, and Louisiana as well as in the Public Health Service, the U.S. military, and Guam do allow appropriately-trained clinical psychologists to prescribe medication, but with certain limitations.

What Psychologists Do

While psychologists cannot prescribe medications in most cases, they do provide other essential mental health services. Licensed psychologists can diagnose psychological conditions, administer tests and assessments, perform psychotherapy, teach coping skills, and more. 

They frequently help people by providing talk therapy, of which there are many different types. The kind of psychotherapy that a psychologist uses may depend upon their background and training, as well as the unique characteristics of your condition. Types of psychotherapy include behavior, cognitive, cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, psychodynamic, and interpersonal. 

Psychologists may help people with psychological problems such as depression or anxiety. They may also work to help people who are having short-term difficulties such as stress from a job loss or grief following the death of a loved one. These mental health professionals may also work with people who have addictions to alcohol or other substances to develop new coping strategies. 

The Role of Psychiatrists

In most cases, if you need medications or other medical treatments for your depression, then you will need to visit a different type of mental health professional called a psychiatrist.

A psychiatrist is an M.D., which makes them qualified to provide prescriptions. These professionals are also trained in how to provide psychotherapy, although more and more psychiatrists are opting to concentrate on the medical aspects of treatment, preferring to instead refer their patients to another mental health professional to address the psychological aspects of their illness.

Other Doctors Can Prescribe Psychiatric Medications

Other physicians, such as your family doctor, may also prescribe psychiatric medications and this can be a good option for many, especially if your case is not complicated and responds well to treatment with an antidepressant.

Seeing your personal physician is also a good idea in order to rule out any other potential causes for your symptoms, including certain medical illnesses like hypothyroidism and medication side effects.

Both psychotherapy and medications are able to help people with depression; and, often, people will do well with just psychotherapy alone or with medications alone. Other times, a combination of both will give the best results. In cases where a person's depression has been difficult to treat or medications are not a good option, treatments such as ECT or TMS may provide better results.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. What do practicing psychologists do? 2019.

  2. Magnezi R, Aminov E, Shmuel D, Dreifuss M, Dannon P. Comparison between neurostimulation techniques repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation vs electroconvulsive therapy for the treatment of resistant depression: patient preference and cost-effectiveness. Patient Prefer Adherence. 2016;10:1481-1487. doi:10.2147/PPA.S105654

Additional Reading

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.