Psychologists or psychiatrists: Who should I go to? Psychologists or psychiatrists: Who should I go to?

Psychologists or psychiatrists: Who should I go to?

Special 3 June, 2017 Isabel Vallejo

While they are both different professions, patients often confuse the two.

Medical advisors Juliana Ángel – Psychiatrist
Juan Diego Tobón Lotero – Clinical psychologist

Patients that visit the offices of psychiatrist Juliana Vergel and clinical psychologist Juan Diego Tobón Lotero are often confused about what their roles are as healthcare specialists. Patients often come to Juliana with symptoms of sadness and ask for psychological advice to help calm their suffering, when what she really works with are pathological issues. With Juan Diego, patients call him “Dr.” when he actually is not and ask him to prescribe medications, something his field of work does not practice.

In order to clarify these confusions, Juliana and Juan Diego explain what each of these professions are about and what cases are more pertinent to each.

When is a psychologist seen?

In the minds of many, patients who see psychologists lie down on a lounge chair, while the psychologist sits in an armchair and asks all sorts of questions about them.

This confusion, which never seems to go away, makes people mistake psychologists for psychoanalysts, which is another type of medical specialty where the famous lounge chair is often used. This is not true for psychology, which is a social and human science that has a health component, but that is not part of the different fields of medicine, explains Juan Diego Tobón.

As Tobón explains, psychologists, “…address issues related to the different cycles of life. Things like, ‘I am going to be a dad,’ ‘I am going to enter retirement,’ ‘I’m not a kid anymore, I’m a teenager,’ and other moments or situations that people do not know how to resolve and need support for.

One of the main differences between psychologists and psychiatrists, is that psychologists cannot prescribe medications in liquid or pill form, not even natural medicine. Nothing. “This goes against the ethical principles of our profession,” Juan Diego explains. Many patients often address him as “Dr.” when he is not, or they complain because he does not prescribe anything.

At a consultation, a psychologist can try to approach the patient by asking them questions about the situation that is bothering them, and later develop a treatment plan based on a specific framework and on having identified the reason behind the consultation. Such matters, of course, cannot be resolved in the first appointment and require a reasonable amount of time to discover the reasons why the patient feels the way they say they do.

When is a psychiatrist seen?

In the words of Juliana Vergel, a specialist from CES University, psychiatry has been stigmatized because people believe that it is for “crazy people.” The psychiatrist explains that this is not surprising, however, as mental health institutes in some cities are often located outside of the urban area or in remote areas.

This is why some patients are afraid of going to a psychiatrist, as perhaps they are embarrassed that they will be told “that they are crazy.” There is nothing more dangerous than believing this stigma, as the sooner emotional disorders, sleep disorders, hallucinations and other problems are treated, the sooner more serious problems can be avoided.

Some deep sorrows can make us want to forget everything: not go to work, not get out of bed and not do anything at all. These are issues that go beyond saying, “I’m sad,” which is when psychiatrists come to intervene. These types of imbalances that affect our family and work life must be treated by a specialist, as they can be related to the consequences of our behaviors, emotions or sleep.” Some of the most common cases are related to anxiety disorders caused by the stress of modern times, which are often justified, but can lead people to stop eating, to their hair falling out or to not sleeping.

In any case, psychologists and psychiatrists should make a team, as there are cases where the line that separates one specialty from the other is a fine one; and psychologists can make referrals to psychiatrists, or a psychiatrist can tell a psychologist that the patient’s situation does not require medical intervention and instead recommend psychological support. In the end, mental health is the priority of both fields.

The WHO defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

Reasons to be seen by a specialist


  • It is important to choose a good psychologist. Ask your physician or other healthcare professionals for guidance on how to make the right decision.
  • Keep a positive attitude. Mental health professionals practice approved methods that will help you change any negative thoughts, emotions or behaviors.
  • Do not take problems on all by yourself, do not somatize them. See a specialist that can help you resolve them.
  • The reason you decide to see a psychologist may not be the reason behind what is troubling you. Treatment will provide the answer.


  • Mental health is very important. Never neglect it. Prevention is better than allowing the disorder or imbalance to worsen and be more difficult to treat later.
  • Clear warning signs include auditory or visual hallucinations, paranoia, feeling suicidal, extreme lack of appetite, or disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.
  • If these symptoms to not go away after the situation that caused them to occur is over, if they become disabling, and especially if they affect one’s ability to do daily activities, it is important to see a psychiatrist.
  • Avoid stereotyping people with mental problems. They may suffer from them from time to time, but that does not mean they are crazy.