A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists focus on the study, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.
If you’re looking for a psychiatrist, it can help to understand the basics of the discipline, including exactly what a psychiatrist can and can’t do when it comes to helping patients. Knowing the ins and outs — such as what kind of training is required to become a psychiatrist, what areas of specialty are involved and what treatments are available — can help you find the right practitioner and better understand your treatment plan.
What is a psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists focus on the study, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. As physicians, psychiatrists are trained and equipped to evaluate physical ailments as well as mental health issues, and are prepared to deal with a broad range of mental illnesses and substance-abuse disorders. Psychiatrists can also order medical tests and prescribe medicine when needed. They utilize various treatments for patients, including talk therapy, medication, and other more intense methods. Many psychiatrists have experience dealing with a wide range of conditions, from eating disorders to schizophrenia.
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What kind of training does a psychiatrist have?
Like other doctors, anyone who wants to become a psychiatrist must start by obtaining a bachelor’s degree followed by completing a degree program from a four-year medical school. After that comes a four-year psychiatry residency program, which can involve a residency in a hospital to work with patients and get hands-on experience in a range of psychiatric issues in real-world settings. Training can take place in different settings, including emergency rooms or out-patient facilities to help gain exposure to a variety of situations.
After completing their residency training, most psychiatrists choose to take a voluntary exam to officially become a board-certified psychiatrist, a certification that must be renewed every 10 years. Some practitioners go on to take part in fellowship programs to become specialists in certain areas of psychiatry, such as child psychiatry, or develop fields of practice in specific kinds of disorders.
What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?
The worlds of psychiatry and psychology are easily confused. They share some similarities but the differences between the two are significant and important. Simply put, psychiatry is a branch of medicine, where practitioners can prescribe medicine and other medical treatments. A psychologist, however, usually does not prescribe medical treatments, but relies on therapy to help patients. Both branches work to treat mental health, but psychologists tend to focus on non-medical factors when treating patients, including social, cultural, and environmental conditions along with stressors from everyday life.
A psychologist can be helpful for patients going through stressful times who want to better understand where their thoughts are coming from. Many people see both a psychologist and a psychiatrist as part of their treatment team. Psychiatrists often work with patients who have more complex mental health concerns that might require deeper treatment and medical consultation, such as severe depression or bipolar disorder.
What does a psychiatrist do?
To understand what psychiatrists do, it’s helpful to look at different aspects of the profession, including specialties they cover, diagnoses they can offer, and treatments they have at hand to help patients. In general, psychiatrists start their work by providing both a physical and mental exam to assess a patient’s needs. They consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as the DSM-5) to reference what disorders or conditions may be involved. A psychiatrist will then work on creating a treatment plan that can involve medication, therapy, or other types of treatments.
Specialty areas in psychiatry
Psychiatrists can choose from several specialty areas that allow them to focus on specific populations and issues. Those fields often require additional training beyond medical school and include specialties such as child and adult psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, community psychiatry, military psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, neurodevelopmental disorders, public health, and psychiatric research.
Like most medical fields, the process of a psychiatric diagnosis starts with an examination. Doctors work with a process of elimination when it comes to symptoms and causes. The psychiatrist has access to a variety of mental and physical tests to help form a diagnosis, including tests for anxiety, eating disorders, and depression. Psychiatrists often use further biological tests as well, including physical examinations, MRIs, blood tests, drug screenings, and tests for other specific infections and diseases. Psychotherapy can both be part of the diagnosis as well as the treatment.
What treatments can a psychiatrist offer?
Psychiatrists are doctors who deeply understand brain chemistry and the brain-body connection. These clinicians have a full knowledge of which medications can be used to treat different conditions. A psychiatrist may prescribe a range of medications, including antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and stimulants. Sometimes a patient requires psychotherapy through regularly scheduled meetings with the psychiatrist to discuss the patient’s emotional state.
Psychiatrists identify and treat a wide range of conditions, including alcohol use disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, bipolar disorder, body dysmorphia, depression, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, sleep disorders, gambling problems, mood disorders, postpartum depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and more.
Patients with treatment-resistant depression or major depressive disorder can benefit from a drug such as Spravato® or treatments such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). TMS is a non-invasive treatment that can help treat depression in patients who have not found relief with standard treatments, such as antidepressants.
Does a psychiatrist offer therapy?
While psychiatrists often meet with patients to discuss symptoms and diagnosis, and prescribe medications and other treatment, most psychiatrists don’t offer ongoing talk therapy as a form of treatment. Therapy is most often offered by psychotherapists, who usually work and communicate with the patient’s psychiatrist. Many people see both a psychiatrist and a therapist.
Sessions with a psychiatrist are often used to check in with patients every one to two months to see how they are responding to medication. The psychiatrist might assess how the patient’s symptoms are responding to medication and if they are experiencing side effects. Patients who are stable and not in the process of changing medications may have less frequent sessions. Session lengths typically fall in the 15–30-minute range.
Finding a psychiatrist
If you think you might benefit from talking to a psychiatrist or if you are looking for a new psychiatrist, Mindpath Health can connect you with compassionate providers who use evidence-based treatment to address symptoms. Schedule an appointment with a Mindpath Health psychiatrist and get started on your path toward better mental health.
Santa Monica, CA