What Is A Psychiatrist? Definition and Types of Practice

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 9, 2021 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated September 9, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

Psychiatrists treat mental health issues through a variety of techniques and approaches. They are highly educated and work with patients under temporary and long-term care. In this article, we discuss what a psychiatrist is, their main responsibilities, educational requirements, treatment methods and the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists.

Related: 6 Mental Health Jobs and Ways To Succeed in the Field

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a doctor that specializes in mental health. They often work in hospitals or private practices with a team of health care professionals, such as primary care physicians, psychiatric nurses, occupational therapists and social workers, to identify, diagnose and treat mental health and other emotional issues.

What are the responsibilities of a psychiatrist?

Though the duties of a psychiatrist may vary depending on specialty and the size of the practice, some of the common responsibilities you’ll find may include:

  • Assessing the impact of biological and environmental factors on a mental wellbeing

  • Evaluating symptoms to diagnose mental disorders

  • Using a variety of techniques to treat mental disorders

  • Providing emergency care for a sudden mental illness

  • Working with patients individually or with family

  • Referring patients to other healthcare practitioners

  • Suggesting lifestyle changes to patients

Psychological disorders

The types of disorders a psychiatrist may treat include:

  • Anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and others

  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating

  • Specific learning disorders, such as dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

  • Mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and substance-induced mood disorder

  • Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and others

  • Psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar psychosis, schizoaffective disorder and others

Related: What Is a Psychiatric Aide? (Plus How To Become One)

Mental and emotional conditions

There are many reasons why people seek out the care of a psychiatrist. Below are some common reasons patients seek out psychiatrists:

  • Stress

  • Insomnia

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Excessive alcohol or drug use

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Related: Learn About Being a Psychiatrist

Types of psychiatrists

Psychiatrists may practice general psychiatry or they may choose a subspecialty within psychiatry and treat only patients within their scope of work. Here are some of the subspecialties a psychiatrist may practice:

  • Addiction psychiatry: An addiction psychiatrist diagnoses and treats patients with disorders related to addiction and impulse control. They treat disorders that involve gambling, food, legal and illegal drugs and other impulse control disorders.

  • Adolescent and child psychiatry: A pediatric psychiatrist focuses on prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses in children and adolescents.

  • Forensic psychiatry: A forensic psychiatrist works with offenders in psychiatric hospitals, prisons and the community. They assess and treat these individuals and determine their risk to others.

  • Geriatric psychiatry: A geriatric psychiatrist specializes in the treatment and diagnosis of individuals in the late stages of life who may be dealing with mental disorders common in old age, such as dementia.

  • Neuropsychiatry: The subspecialty of neuropsychiatry focuses on the link between mental disorders and neurological disorders. For instance, these doctors may study the relationship between dementia and concussions.

  • Occupational psychiatry: This subspecialty involves psychiatrists who treat individuals in the workplace. They assist with workplace issues that deal with work-related mental health concerns.

Related: 12 Psychiatry Careers and How To Choose Between Them

Types of psychiatric treatments

Psychiatrists have may have different treatment methods according to a patient's symptoms, disorders or personal preferences. Some of these treatments are:

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a psychiatric treatment that involves meeting with patients to explore thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviors and relationships on a regular basis. Throughout the therapy session, the psychiatrist may offer suggestions to patients to help them find solutions to their problems. Psychotherapy may be used for a specific period of time, or it may continue for a while depending on the severity of the diagnosis or symptoms

Medication

Medications are often the method of treatment in psychiatry. Psychiatrists sometimes prescribe a combination of medications and adjust doses regularly to achieve the desired results. The medications used in psychiatry are:

  • Antidepressants

  • Antipsychotics

  • Depressants

  • Mood stabilizers

  • Stimulants

  • Anxiolytics

Brain stimulation therapies

Psychiatrists typically use brain stimulation therapy when a disorder is difficult to control with other therapies. These brain stimulation therapies include:

  • Deep brain stimulation: This treatment involves electrical probes that stimulate specific areas of the brain in individuals who have OCD, severe depression or substance abuse issues.

  • Electroconvulsive therapy: This treatment involves the external stimulation of the brain using electrical currents. This treatment may be used on those with bipolar disorder, catatonia or depression.

  • Psychosurgery: This treatment involves certain surgeries that sever circuits in the brain that have been associated with severe mental disorders.

Educational requirements

Psychiatrists must complete advanced education requirements and rigorous training before they are qualified to practice psychiatry. Here are some of the educational requirements for psychiatrists:

1. Undergraduate degree

Obtaining a bachelor's degree is the first step in a prospective psychiatrist's education. Most individuals who are interested in becoming psychiatrists often major in biology or psychology.

2. Medical school

Students are required to pass the Medical School Admissions Test before they can be admitted into medical school. Aspiring psychiatrists are required to complete four years of medical school. They will take intensive courses that include histology, human anatomy, pharmacology and immunology. After they graduate from medical school, they will be awarded a Doctor of Medicine degree and be required to complete a residency.

3. Licensure

Every state requires psychiatrists to have medical licenses. Psychiatrists must take the USMLE or the United States Medical Licensing Exam. They may also be required to periodically renew their license.

Related: 15 Top Psychology Degree Jobs

How is a psychiatrist different from a psychologist?

Psychiatrists and psychologists may perform job duties that are similar, however, there are certain aspects of a psychiatrist's job that require additional education and training that psychologists don't have.

Here are some of the main differences between psychiatrists and psychologists:

  • A psychiatrist focuses on disorders that include chemical imbalances, and psychologists focus on the general mental health of patients and their thoughts and feelings.

  • Psychologists aren't medical doctors like psychiatrists, instead, they may possess a Ph.D., a Psy.D. or an Ed.D.

  • Psychiatrists in every state can prescribe medications, while psychologists cannot prescribe medications unless they practice in Louisiana or New Mexico.

Psychiatrists and psychologists tend to work together to treat their patients.

Read more: Where Do Psychiatrists Work and Other FAQs

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