Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that primarily focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the mental health field like other medical doctors choose surgery or pediatrics. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who chooses to specialize in the treatment of mental, emotional, behavioral health and substance use problems in a residency program. After completing medical school and an additional four to seven years of academic and supervised clinical training in the biological, social, and psychological aspects of mental illness, psychiatrists are the healthcare professionals that are most highly trained to integrate psychiatric diagnosis, pharmacological (medications) treatment, somatic treatments and psychotherapy (talking therapy).
If a psychiatrist wants to specialize in a specific subject or subfield, they can spend 1 to 2 years in a fellowship. Often a psychiatrist will pursue additional training in a psychiatric subspecialty which can range from child psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, addiction psychiatry to geriatric psychiatry. Other psychiatrists provide more specialized treatments such a psychoanalysis, community mental health, ECT, Ketamine and transcranial magnetic therapy procedures.
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 as mentioned above. Psychologists and therapists primarily provide counseling and nonmedical support.
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. Think of it as an apprentice.
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 (job, relationship, marriage)
Anxiety or persistent worry, loss of sleep
Sleep issues (poor sleep, difficulty falling asleep)
Hurting yourself or self-harm (cutting or burning)
Obsessive thinking or compulsory behavior
Having been through a traumatic experience
Uncontrollable alcohol or drug use
Body image problems
Thoughts of hurting someone
Mental health exists on a spectrum. Not all mental health issues require medical treatment from a psychiatrist. Many people seek therapists or psychologists first and are then often referred to a psychiatrist if necessary.
What can 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. They make a diagnosis and work with you to develop a management plan for your treatment and recovery. As part of their work, a psychiatrist can:
1. provide urgent or emergent care for a sudden mental illness
2. work with you individually, with your partner, family and/or caregivers
3. help you to manage a long-term and chronic mental health problem
4. provide advice about lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, or interpersonal relationship roles
5. provide second opinions and advice to other doctors and health professionals
6. refer you to other health professionals like a family physician or endocrinologist or pulmonologist for a sleep study for example
7. admit you to a hospital if absolutely necessary
What can a psychiatrist help with?
A psychiatrist can be of particular help if your mental health condition:
is complex or difficult to diagnose or has had medication or treatment failures
involves suicidal ideas or plans
is severe or happens suddenly
needs medication that only a psychiatrist can prescribe like stimulants in some cases
isn’t responding to standard treatment through your family physician or other medical provider
Common reasons why someone might see a psychiatrist:
problems adjusting after major life changes or stress (job, having a child, loss of a loved one)
anxiety, worry or fear or anxiety that interferes with ones life (attending school)
depressed or low mood that doesn’t abate
hurting yourself on purpose
too much energy, being unable to sleep, wind down or relax
constant negative thoughts
obsessional thinking or compulsions
thoughts people want to harm you or hurt you
hallucinations (hearing voices or seeing people or objects that aren’t there)
delusions (fixed beliefs with no basis in reality)
rushing or fast racing thoughts
excessive alcohol or drug use
problems gambling or addiction
problems around body image, eating or extreme dieting
poor focus, concentration and attention, hyperactivity, poor grades
violence, easy to agitate or quick emotional outbursts
insomnia and other sleep problems that include hypersomnia
conditions that start in childhood such as autism, intellectual disability or childhood anxiety.
How do I find a Psychiatrist?
You can use the American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Doctor tool to do an online search for participating doctors in your area. You can also use psychology today website to focus on providers by language, insurance, and populations treated or specialties, cost. You can call your insurance provider for a list of active psychiatrists accepting new patients.
Another way to find a psychiatrist is to do a Google search, or to ask your primary care doctor for a recommendation.