Tag Archives: evaluations

Psychiatric vs. Psychological evaluations: What is the difference?


In place of my usual physiology Phriday post, I give you this…

“I think I need a psychiatric evaluation? Can you test me?” These are some of the questions I get from time to time. And they reveal an ongoing confusion about testings, assessment, evaluations, the world of psychiatry, psychology, and neurology. Interestingly, if you type in “psychiatric evaluation” into wikipedia, you actually get redirected to an entry on psychological evaluations and testing. So, let me try to differentiate a bit here:

What is a psychiatric evaluation? It is done by a psychiatrist who is a physician with special psychiatry training (courses and residencies). This evaluation is comprehensive but medical in nature. Expect the person to ask for your physical, behavioral, and cognitive histories, order blood tests or other medical exams, evaluate (by observation and interview) your mood, your reality testing, and mental status etc. Ultimately, after an extensive (and usually expensive) interview, the doctor will arrive at a psychiatric diagnosis (if appropriate) and may also recommend medicines to help with the problem–which they can prescribe. A few also provide ongoing talk therapy but most do not. Rather, they recommend you find a therapist for that part. They will follow up with med checks as needed to titrate or refine your medicines. When a person has a very difficult, complex, or lengthy history of mental health, or, when the person is needing a diagnosis for legal reasons, a psychiatrist is a good choice. They are usually gifted at extracting subtle physical and behavioral matters that may help correctly pinpoint the problem. While a person might well get anti-depressants from their regular doctor, a good psychiatrist is better able to deal with complex matters and follow you more closely to get the right compound and dosage.

Neurological Evaluation. Stating the obvious, a physician with neurological specialties and qualifications does a neurological evaluation. Neurologists specialize in…wait for it…the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and 12 cranial nerves). A neurological evaluation includes many of the things evaluated by psychiatrists but with special attention to your motor and sensory systems, your reflexes, and similar kinds of things. You might more likely see a neurologist when you obviously have a neurological issue. Neurologists are more likely to specialize in ADHD, brain injuries, and psychiatric problems that result from dementias or other known physical problems. They are often better able to give and interpret MRIs and other imaging that might be appropriate. They will also prescribe and follow medications.

Psychological Evaluation, AKA testing, psych assessment. These are offered, mostly, by doctoral level psychologists. These evaluations will cover much of the same history, mental status, and provide diagnoses when appropriate. Interviews, just like the previous two options, are essential. However, what sets psychological evaluation apart is its use of standardized tests. These may be paper and pencil or electronic. They may be filled out by the client or by family members. The results provide a snapshot of behavior, or cognitive functioning, or mood by contrasting the individual results against a peer group. For example, a child may complete a computerized test to assess attention span. The results are compared to thousands of children taking this test who either are “non ADHD” and or ADHD. A good psychologist collects data from multiple data points (test data, interviews by client and maybe family, observations, etc.) and uses that data to make interpretations and recommendations for ongoing care. Usually, the best psychological evaluations begin with a very objective, specific question. Just throwing a bunch of tests at a person to “see what comes up” isn’t all that helpful. Just because something pops up doesn’t mean it is meaningful.

It is true that masters level therapists (licensed or not) give and interpret some tests. But most of the best tests can only be given and interpreted by doctoral level, licensed psychologists.

There are other types of evaluations. Neuropsychologists are doctoral psychologists with specialized training and help pinpoint brain injury, unravel more complex learning disabilities, etc. Neuropsychiatric evaluations are done by another similar but slightly different professional. You can check out their interesting history on this wikipedia page.

So, how do you choose what is best for you? Answer a few questions.

1. What do I really want to know when it is all said and done? What might help me decide how to proceed? The more specific you are, the more likely you can get the answer you want.

2. Do I think I need to focus more on physical options or behavioral options?

3. Do I think I’m likely to need medications? The physician types are better. Psychologists cannot prescribe meds (unless you live in Hawaii or are in the military).

4. If I am given a diagnosis, what do I need it for? Both doctoral level psychologists and psychiatrists are capable of giving you diagnoses. However, some people or systems value one opinion over another. Figure out if it matters for your purposes.

5. Am I looking for specific behavioral/relational suggestions? Then psychological evaluations are more appropriate.

6. Am I looking to form an ongoing therapeutic talk based relationship? See the psychologist.

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