Psychiatry and Psychology: What's the difference, and what's right for you?

Mental Health in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a fast and furious city: with a pace of life that leaves many of its residents under considerable stress it is unsurprising that over 13% of ethnically Chinese adults in Hong Kong experience one of the common mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety.

With so many people experiencing mental health concerns, many also find themselves seeking treatment for their symptoms. Unfortunately, the world of mental health treatment can be confusing - one of the most common confusions is between the two main types of mental health professional: psychiatrists and psychologists, but there are a few simple differences to keep in mind.

Psychiatrists and Psychologists

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized in mental illnesses. As medical doctors, they are able to write prescriptions for medications. Psychiatrists will typically have a perspective that is more heavily informed by biology, although they can be just as well trained in the counselling and behavioural therapies which are the primary tools of psychologists. For some varieties of mental illness, a psychiatrist is particularly important. For example, in schizophrenia which has many symptoms that cannot be adequately controlled by counselling or other therapies.

Psychologists - who are not medical doctors - are highly-trained allied health professionals who provide an essential form of mental health care through behavioral therapies and counselling.

Psychiatrists and psychologists frequently make referrals to one another. Some individuals may prefer treatment with or without medication depending on their condition, its severity, and other factors.

Making the right choice

For most mental health issues, especially the most serious, a psychiatrist will be needed for a definitive medical diagnosis and to help create a comprehensive treatment plan. However, the first step should be to consult a general practitioner (GP) to help initiate appropriate mental health care. Psychologists will often be the best choice to help individuals learn to cope with their condition, and start on the path to recovery.

Public and private treatment: challenges and benefits

Mental illnesses can appear suddenly and be highly debilitating. At the moment, there are only about 330 psychiatrists employed across Hong Kong's public hospitals - 400 fewer than the number recommended by the World Health Organization. In some cases, patients may have to wait for up to three years before they can be seen by a public hospital psychiatrist.

Given this potential for long delays, many would consider recourse to the private sector. Private psychiatrists may charge anything from $1,000 to $5,000 HKD per hour, depending on the circumstances and the type of consultation undertaken. These costs can be especially prohibitive when one considers the ongoing nature of much mental health treatment. For most of us, this is only an option when coupled with adequate financial preparation.


Mental health is an important and growing issue in Hong Kong. Psychiatrists and psychologists both have a significant role to play in mental health provision, but deciding to seek help, and see your GP, is the most important first step.


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