Can a psychologist diagnose and prescribe medication?

The simple answer to this question is that a psychologist can diagnose. However, they cannot prescribe medication. Well, at least in most cases. There has been a recent push in some parts of the world to grant psychologists prescribing privileges, and there are already some countries where psychologists have prescribing privileges.

Before we talk about this, let’s talk about the role of a psychologist and the training they receive.


Who is a psychologist?

A psychologist is a health care professional who looks at normal and abnormal mental states, perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior by experimenting with, watching, analyzing, and recording how people interact with each other and with their environments.

The usual route to being a psychologist involves first getting a 3 to 4 years bachelor’s degree with honors in psychology, followed by a post-graduate master’s and/or a doctorate in psychology. Most places in the world will also require specialized training along with the educational qualifications to qualify for a license. On the other hand, a master’s degree is enough to apply for a license in some parts of the world. The level of qualifications and experience you need entirely depends on the governmental health authorities in your country and the field that you want to work in. For instance, a clinical psychologist often requires a longer training period in comparison to an industrial psychologist.

When we say psychologist, you probably imagine a man or woman sitting on a large armchair with a pen and book in hand talking to a patient who is laying on a couch. This is a very common image in mainstream media and therefore it is easy to think that it is what a psychologist does. Nonetheless, this is not always the case.

There are many types of psychologists who train and work in many diverse and specialized areas in the field. Consequently, the term “psychologist” can apply to anyone who:

  • Uses psychological knowledge and research to solve problems, such as treating mental health problems.
  • Works as a social scientist to conduct psychological research and teach at colleges or universities.

The American Psychological Association (APA), recognizes around 54 specialized divisions within psychology.


Types of psychologists

While there are several types of psychologists, they mainly fall into one of these three categories:

  • Applied psychologists: use psychological principles and research to solve real-world problems. Examples include aviation psychologists, engineering psychologists, industrial-organizational psychologists, and human factors psychologists.
  • Research psychologists: experiment and study human or animal participants. Research psychologists often work for universities, companies, or government agencies. Their reserach mainly focuses on a variety of specialties within psychology, including as cognition, neuroscience, personality, development, and social behavior.
  • Mental health professionals: work with people who suffer from mental illness and other mental health problems. They are usually employed in hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, government offices, or private practices. Clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists, and school psychologists are examples of mental health psychologists.


Work settings

Psychologists do a wide range of tasks. Therefore, their work environments may differ greatly. Some psychologists work in hospitals, health clinics, mental health centers, or psychiatric institutes. Other types of psychologists work in academic or research settings, where they frequently educate students and perform psychological research.


Psychologist vs Psychiatrist

A lot of people are not sure about the differences between these two professions, some even think it is the same thing. Nonetheless, if you are planning to start a career in mental health or go into mental health treatment, it is important to know the differences. The simples answer and the most profound difference between the two professions come from their educational background. A psychiatrist is someone who has a medical degree and then specializes in psychology or psychiatry. In other words, a medical doctor. However, a psychologist does not have a medical background. Instead, they have a doctoral-level degree in psychology. This could be either a Ph.D. if they are a research psychologist or a PsychD if they are a clinical psychologist.

To get into some more detail, other differences between the two relate to:

  • training
  • treatments provided
  • conditions treated
  • getting an appointment



As medical doctors psychiatrists spend more time training and in education. Usually, this is at least 10 years but can change slightly depending on the country. In Australia, the psychiatric training program involves 5 years of training.

On the other hand, Psychologists have at least 6 years of university training and supervised experience. This too can change slightly depending on the country. For instance, A minimum six years of education and training in psychology is required to become eligible for general registration as a psychologist in Australia.


Treatment provided

Psychiatrists can provide a variety of treatments based on the specific condition and what would work best. These are some examples:

  • Medication
  • General medical care, including checking your physical health and the effects of medication
  • Psychological treatments

Psychologists specialize in psychological therapy.


Conditions treated

Psychiatrists often treat patients with complex conditions, who require medical, psychological, and social help. These could include:

  • Severe depression
  • Bippolar disorder
  • Schizophernia

Psychologists are more likely to see patients who have disorders that can be effectively treated with psychological therapy. This might include behavioral issues, learning disabilities, depression, and anxiety.


Getting an appoinment

Just like with all medical specialists, you will need to get a referral from your general practitioner (GP) to see a psychiatrist. You do not need a referral to see a psychologist in Australia. However, a GP can refer you to a psychologist as part of a Mental Health Treatment Plan.

In Australia and New Zealand, there are around 4000 psychiatrists and over 27,000 certified psychologists.


Can a psychologist diagnose?

Now to the big two questions of this article. Yes, a psychologist can diagnose. To become a clinical psychologist, one of the main requirements is a doctoral or master’s degree in psychology along with specialized clinical training. During this time, they train on how to recognize different mental illnesses and make an accurate diagnosis. To do this, they conduct clinical interviews, psychological examinations, and testing. In addition to making a diagnosis, they are also well trained in treatment interventions using individual or group therapy.


Can a psychologist prescribe medication?

The short answer to this would be a no. Psychologists are not required to learn or receive training on pharmacology (the study of drugs and their actions on living systems) as a part of their education. Consequently, their knowledge of medical drugs is limited. On the other hand, it is compulsory for medical doctors to learn pharmacology, which is why a psychiatrist can prescribe medication. Nonetheless, as we mentioned before, there how been a recent push to grant psychologists prescribing privileges in some countries under special requirements. For example, the United States.

Some of the special requirements that may grant prescribing privileges to psychologists include:

  • Completing a postdoctoral master’s degree in clinical psychopharmacology.
  • Specialised training is pharmocology and psychopharmacology (the study of the use of medication to treat mental health problems)


Arguments for prescribing privileges

According to research, around 30% of all patients that visit primary care physicians show symptoms of mental health problems. Subsequently, primary care physicians go on to prescribe medication for around 70% of their patients with mental health problems, even though they lack the understanding and training on mental health. Therefore, many argue that having psychologists who can use both drugs and therapy as treatment could benefit a lot of patients. Other arguments for prescribing privileges include:

  • Increased accessibility to mental health care
  • Patients get to acess treatment faster without circulating between a psychologist and psychiatrist
  • Help rural partients access treatment faster and readily
  • Decrease the time taken for treatment in case of a shortage of psychiatrists


Arguments against prescribing previledges

A few of them include:

  • Not enough training in medicine and pharmacology.
  • Risks of side effects of medications.
  • Danger of failing to notice medical disorders that might be mistaken for mental disorders.
  • Many patients who use psychiatric medications also have one or more coexisting medical conditions.
  • Physicians and psychiatrists are better trained to determine when and if medications are needed.


Psychiatrist or psychologist?

If you are not sure who to see between a psychologist and psychiatrist, you can talk to your general practitioner. They will give you advice on which medical professional will be right for you. It will depend on your unique situation and the type of treatment you need. Some people might see both. Before you decide to go to either one, we recommend that you do a background check to see if they are licensed and experienced in treating the mental health problem that you have. To do this, you can start by reading up on their websites or giving them a call before making an appointment.


Things to consider

Here are some other things you might want to consider when choosing between the two professionals:

  • A psychologist might be the better option if you want to spend time talking about an issue and working through it in a one-on-one session.
  • If you want to get any medication for a mental health disorder, you may want to start by talking with a psychiatrist.  
  • If the issue you’re hoping to address is relationship-focused, such as a problem at work or with a family member, you may find what you need from a psychologist.

Psychiatrists and psychologists, as we said before, both focus on helping people enhance their mental well-being. In addition, both are often well educated in a range of therapeutic approaches. Therefore, you don’t have to know exactly what you need before you ask for help. The best place to begin is with a clinician with whom you feel comfortable. They will listen to your reasons for seeking treatment, analyze your symptoms, consider your medical, mental, and family history, and help you decide the next step. Also, keep in mind that many patients visit more than one mental health professional before finding the ideal fit.


A word of farewell

If you are someone living in Australia who wants to talk to a psychologist (or a psychiatrist), please don’t hesitate to reach out to us using the contact information given on our website. Here at Epsychiatry, we have a team of a qualified, licensed, and experienced team of mental health experts who can help you with every step of the way on your journey to better mental well-being.