About Psychiatry

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.

People seek psychiatric help for many reasons. The problems can be sudden, such as a panic attack, frightening hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, or hearing “voices.” Or they may be more long term, such as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or anxiousness that never seem to lift or problems functioning, causing everyday life to feel distorted or out of control.

Diagnosing Patients

Because they are physicians, psychiatrists can order or perform a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests which, combined with discussions with patients, help provide a picture of a patient’s physical and mental state. Their education and clinical training equip them to understand the complex relationship between emotional and other medical illnesses and the relationships with genetics and family history, to evaluate medical and psychological data, to make a diagnosis, and to work with patients to develop treatment plans.

Specific diagnoses are based on criteria established in APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which contains descriptions, symptoms and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

What Treatments Are Used?

Psychiatrists use a variety of treatments – including various forms of psychotherapy, medications, psychosocial interventions and other treatments (such as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), depending on the needs of each patient.

Psychiatric Training

To become a psychiatrist, a person must complete medical school and take a written examination for a state license to practice medicine, and then complete four years of psychiatry residency.

Some psychiatrists also complete additional specialized training after their four years of general psychiatry training. They may become certified in:

  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Forensic (legal) psychiatry
  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Pain medicine
  • Psychosomatic (mind and body) medicine
  • Sleep medicine

What is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and Psychologist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (completed medical school and residency) with special training in psychiatry. A psychiatrist is able to conduct psychotherapy and prescribe medications and other medical treatments.

A psychologist usually has an advanced degree, most commonly in clinical psychology, and often has extensive training in research or clinical practice. Psychologists treat mental disorders with psychotherapy and some specialize in psychological testing and evaluation.