The difference between a child psychologist and child psychiatrist

What exactly is the difference between a child psychologist and child psychiatrist?  The two terms are frequently mistakenly interchanged, but the requirements for the two are considerably different.

To become a child psychologist, many programs require that you get an undergraduate degree in psychology, although some graduate programs will only require that you take the prerequisite sciences courses (biology, physical and social sciences, statistics, mathematics, etc.) before applying for the graduate degree.  Typically, becoming a child psychologist requires completion of a doctoral degree, which is often 5 to 7 years of graduate study.  This may be a PhD degree, which culminates in a dissertation based on original research.  The PsyD degree, on the other hand, may be based on practical clinical work and examinations rather than completing the dissertation.  In clinical or counseling psychology, the requirements for the doctoral degree include at least a 1-year internship.   A few states do allow school psychologists to only have a master’s degree and a 1-year internship.

Child psychologists may do individual and/or family therapy to help treat children and teenagers with emotional problems.  Some focus primarily on psychological or neuropsychological testing to try to pinpoint specific problem areas.  There are a few places in the United States that do allow child psychologists to prescribe medications (New Mexico, Louisiana, Guam) if they have completed additional training to meet the necessary requirements.

Child psychiatrists, on the other hand, are licensed physicians.  After finishing an undergraduate degree, child psychiatrists are required to complete a 4-year medical school (MD or DO degree) before continuing on to residency training.   This usually consists of three years of general psychiatry followed by two years of training specific to child psychiatry.  During this time, they are required to pass the licensing exam for the state where they undergo training as part of the requirement to complete their residency training.  Afterwards, they often go on take exams to obtain board certification in that specialty.

Child psychiatrists, once licensed, are given privileges to prescribe medications as well as do therapy.  In addition, they may order lab tests (such as blood or urine tests) as well as diagnostic studies (an MRI of the brain, or EEG, for example) as part of the diagnostic work-up.  Sometimes they admit children or teenagers to the hospital or do consultations on patients who have already been admitted to a pediatric unit.

As noted above, the differences between a child psychologist and child psychiatrist are fairly dramatic.  Often the two will work in tandem (depending on the child’s needs) to help ensure the child gets the level of care he or she requires.

Roy Michael Stefanik is a psychiatrist who blogs at Fairfax Mental Health.

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