Psychiatrist

Overview

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who’s an expert in the field of psychiatry — the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.

Psychiatrists assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological conditions. They can diagnose and treat these conditions.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. They can prescribe medications and other medical treatments.

A psychologist has a doctoral degree (PhD), typically in clinical psychology, and often has extensive training in research or clinical practice. Psychologists treat mental health conditions with psychotherapy (talk therapy). A psychologist can’t prescribe medication.

Psychiatrists typically treat more complex mental health conditions than psychologists, especially ones that require medication or medical treatments.

To give another perspective, psychology is the study of the mind, emotions and behavior; whereas psychiatry is the field of medicine focused on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist?

A therapist has a master’s degree in a mental health-related field such as psychology, counseling psychology or family therapy. They’re qualified to evaluate a person’s mental health and use therapeutic techniques, such as talk therapy. Examples of therapists include licensed social workers and licensed professional clinical counselors. A therapist can’t prescribe medication.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and prescribe medicine and medical treatment for mental health conditions.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a neurologist?

A neurologist is a medical doctor who diagnoses, treats and manages conditions of the brain and nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves). A neurologist knows the anatomy, function and conditions that affect your nerves and nervous system.

While neurologists and psychiatrists are both doctors that deal with conditions that affect your brain, a neurologist is more focused on the physical aspects and symptoms of the condition, and a psychiatrist is more focused on the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of the condition. Neurologists also diagnose and treat conditions that affect your nerves and spinal cord; a psychiatrist doesn’t work with these kinds of conditions.

Both doctors can prescribe medication, and both doctors may be involved with the management of certain conditions that affect your brain. For example, depression commonly occurs in people who have Parkinson’s disease or who’ve had a stroke.

What does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist assesses, diagnoses and treats mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors and can order or perform a variety of medical and/or psychological tests. These tests, combined with conversations about symptoms and medical and family history, allow psychiatrists to diagnose mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists use criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) to diagnose specific mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists also form individualized treatment plans, which can include psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication and other medical treatments.

What conditions do psychiatrists treat?

Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat several conditions, including:

What treatments do psychiatrists use?

Psychiatrists use and prescribe a variety of treatments, including:

Treatment for mental health conditions is very individualized and unique to each person. Treatment often involves a combination of therapies.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, often called “talk therapy” or “therapy” for short, is a treatment that involves talking with a trained mental healthcare professional to help identify and work through the factors that are affecting your mental health or may be triggering your mental health condition.

The goal of psychotherapy is to eliminate or control disabling or troubling thought and behavioral patterns so you can function better. Psychotherapy can be short-term or long-term depending on your symptoms and condition.

There are several different types of psychotherapy, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT).
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
  • Problem-solving therapy (PST).
  • Psychodynamic therapy.

Medications

Psychiatrists can prescribe medications to help treat mental health conditions. These medications work to alter chemical signaling and communication within your brain, which can minimize some symptoms of certain psychiatric conditions.

Psychiatrists often prescribe medications in combination with psychotherapy.

Classes of medications that psychiatrists typically prescribe include:

  • Antidepressants.
  • Antipsychotic medications.
  • Hypnotics.
  • Mood stabilizers.
  • Sedatives and anxiolytics.
  • Stimulants.
  • Ketamine.

Other treatments

Psychiatrists sometimes use other treatment therapies for certain psychiatric conditions, including:

Much less common treatments include:

When should I see a psychiatrist?

Determining when to see a psychiatrist often requires a candid self-assessment of your symptoms and day-to-day experiences. While you shouldn’t try to self-diagnose any specific mental health conditions, you can become aware of and note behaviors, emotions and thought patterns that are unhealthy and disruptive to your everyday life.

While it can be difficult and overwhelming to seek help for mental health conditions, it’s essential to do so. Mental health conditions are very common, and your mental health is just as important as your physical health.

In some cases, your primary healthcare provider may refer you to a psychiatrist if you share your symptoms with them. But you can usually go directly to a psychiatrist for a diagnosis and treatment plan if you prefer.

Mental health episodes may happen randomly, infrequently or be constant. The important thing to remember is that if they’re negatively affecting your quality of life, it’s a clear sign you need to seek help.

If you have any of the following symptoms or experiences, you may want to consider seeing a psychiatrist or telling your primary healthcare provider:

  • Inability to manage or control your emotions.
  • Continuous or frequent episodes of anger or rage.
  • Excessive or irrational fears.
  • Engaging in risky behavior.
  • Excessive worrying and/or sadness.
  • Significant changes in sleep patterns.
  • Substance use.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Declining performance in school or work.
  • Withdrawal from social situations.
  • Thoughts of self-harm.

Remember, there’s no shame in having or seeking help for a mental health condition. The sooner you seek help and treatment, the sooner you’ll feel better.

What can I expect during an appointment with a psychiatrist?

To get the most out of your appointment with your psychiatrist, it’s helpful to be prepared. Ways to prepare include:

  • Bring a list of the most important issues you want to discuss with your psychiatrist.
  • Discuss new symptoms or changes in existing or prior symptoms. Consider keeping a day-to-day journal of your symptoms so it’s easier to keep track of how your symptoms change or affect your quality of life.
  • Discuss any changes in your overall physical health.
  • Discuss your family’s history of physical and mental health conditions.
  • Share with your psychiatrist how others see you doing, especially family, friends and co-workers who really care about you.
  • Bring a list of all the current medications and substances you take. Include prescription medications; over-the-counter medications; any vitamins, supplements and herbal products; and any recreational drugs.

What questions should I ask my psychiatrist?

It may be helpful to ask your psychiatrist the following questions during an appointment:

  • What’s my diagnosis and how did you arrive at it?
  • How much experience do you have in treating my condition?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • When can I expect to feel better?
  • How will I know I’m feeling better?
  • What should I do if I feel worse?
  • Who do I contact with an emergency related to my condition?
  • What are the side effects of my medication?
  • Will you work with my other healthcare providers?

Frequently Asked Questions

How does someone become a psychiatrist?

To become a psychiatrist, you must successfully complete:

  • Four years of undergrad education at a college or university, resulting in a bachelor’s degree.
  • Four years of medical school, resulting in a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
  • Four-year residency program.

After completing residency, most psychiatrists take a voluntary written and oral examination given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to become a board-certified psychiatrist.

Some psychiatrists also complete fellowship programs to specialize in a particular area of psychiatry, such as child and adolescent psychiatry, which focuses on the mental health in the pediatric population, or consultation liaison psychiatry, which studies the interface of physical and mental health in the medical population.

What are some subspecialties of psychiatry?

Some subspecialties of psychiatry include:

  • Addiction psychiatry.
  • Emergency psychiatry.
  • Forensic (legal) psychiatry.
  • Geriatric psychiatry.
  • Pain medicine.
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry.
  • Consultation-liaison psychiatry.
  • Sleep medicine.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

While it can be overwhelming to acknowledge and seek help for a mental health condition, it’s essential you do. A psychiatrist can provide an accurate diagnosis and suggest treatment plans. They’re experts in their field and have up-to-date knowledge on research, medications and other treatment therapies that can help you. Your psychiatrist will work with you to determine a treatment plan that’s best for you.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/10/2022.

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. What is Psychiatry? (https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry-menu) Accessed 4/10/2022.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness. Types of Mental Health Professionals. (https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments/Types-of-Mental-Health-Professionals) Accessed 4/10/2022.

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