Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the mental health field.
Although their professions overlap in many ways, psychiatrists aren’t the same as psychologists. Psychiatrists get medical training that lets them prescribe medications and perform procedures. Psychologists primarily provide counseling and nonmedical support.
What Does a Psychiatrist Do?
When you make an appointment with a psychiatrist, they’ll first ask about your mental and physical symptoms. This may involve a physical exam, lab tests, and/or a psychological evaluation. As part of the process they’ll refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to determine what mental illness you may have. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, this manual is used by mental health professionals for diagnoses and by insurance companies for reimbursement purposes.
There are numerous classes of mental illness, including:
- Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
- Bipolar and related disorders
- Trauma- and stressor-related disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Feeding and eating disorders
- Elimination disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Sexual dysfunctions
- Gender dysphoria
- Substance-related and addictive disorders
- Personality disorders
It may take more than one visit to get a proper diagnosis.
After making a diagnosis, the psychiatrist will tell you on your condition and work with you to develop a treatment plan. Treatment may involve any combination of the following:
- Psychotherapy, or talk therapy
- Light therapy, which mainly treats seasonal depression
- Brain stimulation therapies, such as deep brain stimulation (DBS), vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)
Some common medications psychiatrists prescribe include:
Education and Training
Psychiatrists take the traditional steps to becoming a doctor. They complete a bachelor's degree as well as a four-year medical school degree program. To earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) or Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, psychiatrists must undergo the same medical training as most other physicians.
Psychiatrists-in-training must then complete a psychiatric residency program, in which they gain hands-on experience in their field.
If a psychiatrist wants to specialize in a specific subject or subfield, they can spend 1 to 2 years in a fellowship. A specialty in psychiatry usually leads to a greater number of employment opportunities.
Reasons to See a Psychiatrist
There are a number of signs that you might benefit from visiting a psychiatrist, including:
- Problems adjusting to life changes
- Anxiety or worry
- Lasting depression
- Suicidal thoughts
- Hurting yourself
- Obsessive thinking
- Hallucinations or delusions
- Uncontrollable alcohol or drug use
- Body image problems
- Poor concentration
- Emotional outburst
- Sleep issues
Mental health exists on a spectrum. Not all mental health issues require medical treatment from a psychiatrist. Many people seek counselors or psychologists first and are then referred to a psychiatrist if necessary. Ask your doctor about the right mental health practitioner for you.