Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Psychology is NOT Psychiatry: a rant against harmful confusions in fiction writing.

I'm not a grammar Nazi, but I am a definition hard-ass. Words matter to me. How they sound is important. When you use them is important. But most of all, what they mean is important because the meaning is the hardest part to pin down, and the squiggliest, wiggliest, ugliest beast of them all is the connotation of a word.

Misuse word meaning and connotations and you can generate a whole host of confusions. Misrepresent the meaning and you generate a nest of pain perpetuating ignorance and malnourished and deformed ideas that may never be logically corrected.

For example, one common harmful confusion (dear to me professionally) is the use of the term Psychiatrist when you mean Psychologist or vice versa. A psychiatrist has little or no training in psychology and a psychologist has zero training in medicine.

Are they related? Yes, but they are not interchangeable
According to Merriam-Webster:
  • Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that deals with mental or emotional disorders.
  • Medicine is the science that deals with preventing, curing, and treating diseases.
  • Meanwhile, psychology is the science or study of the mind and behavior.
In practical terms, this mean you go to a psychiatrist if you want medicine or treatment for a mental or an emotional disorder/ disease. You go to a psychologist if you want to study or gain more insight into your mind or behavior--usually so that you can apply the science of psychology to improve your mind or behavior. 
Frequently psychiatrists and psychologists work together. A psychiatrist will assess a mental/ emotional disorder, prescribe a medicine, and refer you to a psychologist so that you can learn how to modify your behavior to minimize or eliminate the consequences of your emotional disorder. A psychologist may coach a client on a behavior modification only to realize the client is actually suffering a mental/ emotional disorder and will refer the client to a psychiatrist for medical treatment.
So what? Why should you care as a writer or a reader if these two terms are used correctly?
I think you should care because every time these words are used incorrectly it breeds misunderstanding about where you, your family, and your friends can expect to go to get the right kind of mental and emotional help and encouragement. At best misunderstanding one for the other means you start with the wrong professional first and waste time. At worst misunderstanding one for the other means you don't get what you need and you get so frustrated you quit before you realize the misunderstanding--and thus go without the life-saving mental and emotional support that fits you.

I beg my fellow writers to learn the difference. Care more about the content of your words than your semi-colons and commas.  Please. Be a hero (nail the squiggliest dragon of all).

I beg my fellow readers to hold writers responsible for these differences above all else. Give them feedback about the connotations and impact of their words in your life--whether or not you like the plot. Please.  It saves lives.
St. George Slaying the Dragon/ Saving Lives


  1. Wow! You have very accurately described one of my pet peeves. IMHO there is no excuse for not using those terms accurately. I am a clinical psychologist with 30 years of professional experience and it still aggravates me when an author treats the words "psychologist" and "psychiatrist" as if they were interchangeable. Would you really want the flight attendant to fly the plane?!

  2. When psychologist and psychiatrist are used incorrectly by the writer, the reader loses confidence in the writer.


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