Understanding Types Of Psychiatrists

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Like all fields of medicine, psychiatry has specialists for specific fields of study. Some find those specialties confusing, and when seeking psychiatric help, they may be unsure of what kind of psychiatrist to see. If you are considering seeing a psychiatrist to address specific mental health challenges, it can be beneficial to understand those fields to choose a psychiatrist that best suits your needs. 

What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

Although they all treat mental health conditions, there are fundamental differences between psychiatrists and psychologists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors with medical training and residency specializing in mental health. Within that field, there are deeper specialties that psychiatrists can train in. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications to treat a diagnosable mental health condition, such as generalized anxiety disorder, and they’re also able to ensure that any prescribed drugs will not interact with other prescriptions that patients may take for other health conditions. In addition to medications, psychiatrists may perform medical procedures to treat patients, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

A psychologist has a doctoral degree in psychology but does not have a medical degree and, therefore, cannot prescribe medicine or perform medical procedures. After completing a graduate school program specializing in learning to diagnose and treat mental disorders, a psychologist will usually complete an internship for further training and clinical experience. Psychologists sometimes work with a psychiatrist who provides medical treatment while they provide psychotherapy for the patient. 

A psychiatrist's career – From school to treating mental illness

Many types of psychiatrists begin their careers with general psychiatry and move forward from there to specialize in certain areas, such as child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, or addiction psychiatry, among others.

A psychiatrist’s career begins with a residency program after medical school. Depending on their field of study, psychiatrists may undergo additional studies and residency programs. Some psychiatrists decide to simply practice general psychiatry without specializing in a specific population or clinical issue.

What mental health services do psychiatrists provide?

Psychiatrists evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders with medication or medical procedures. Some types of psychiatrists may also provide talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, although it is more common for them to refer patients to a licensed therapist for this sort of treatment. Psychiatrists may also use biofeedback therapy, ECT, and other therapies. Psychiatrists work in several different settings. Many psychiatrists have their own practices in addition to working in a hospital or clinical setting. They may work in inpatient hospitals, community mental health clinics that are outpatient settings, or their own practices.

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Types of psychiatrists

There are several different specialties in which psychiatrists may study beyond residency programs and education in general psychiatry. In order to practice in a specific area of psychiatry, additional training—which may involve further education, clinical hours, and residency—is typically required. 

  • Child and adolescent psychiatrists. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are trained to treat younger patients under the age of 18. Younger patients require treatments appropriate for their physiological development, particularly if medications or medical procedures are involved. It’s important to consult a professional with specialized training in adolescent and child psychiatry if you have a child or teen who needs psychiatric care. 

  • Geriatric psychiatrists. Geriatric psychiatrists specialize in treating elderly patients. Elderly patients have specific needs and unique neurological disorders that psychiatrists may treat, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Since these disorders can sometimes be accompanied by additional mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, it’s essential for elderly patients to see a geriatric psychiatrist trained to treat these mental illnesses in conjunction with other disorders.

  • Addiction psychiatrists. Addiction psychiatrists specialize in addiction treatment. Patients who experience drug and alcohol addiction sometimes have mental health issues such as depression and trauma. Addiction psychiatrists are trained specifically in treating addiction, as well as those sorts of coexisting complications. They can discover the underlying causes of addiction, diagnose pre-existing mental health disorders, and promote positive mental health in patients. They can also prescribe medications to help patients cope with withdrawal and underlying mental illness.

  • Forensic psychiatrists. Forensic psychiatrists specialize in mental health disorders that lead to criminal activity. Psychiatrists specializing in forensics often work in different capacities with the criminal and court systems. For instance, their expertise may determine if an inmate is suitable for trial or requires institutionalization. Many psychiatrists who work as forensic psychiatrists also have their own practices in adult or general psychiatry.

  • Neuropsychiatrists. A neuropsychiatrist is a psychiatrist trained to handle mental illnesses related to brain injuries, neurological diseases, and nervous system problems. These psychiatrists have specialized knowledge of the brain and how neurological issues affect mental health. People who have had a brain injury or a serious medical condition resulting in mental illness require treatment from this highly specialized type of psychiatrist.

  • Organizational psychiatrist. Organizational psychiatrists are psychiatrists who specialize in the workplace and organizational behavior. Professionals working in organizational psychiatry may be utilized by companies to develop policies and procedures that support employees’ mental wellness and help facilitate positive mental health practices. These psychiatrists are also sometimes enlisted to help train and maintain management in an organization.

  • Nurse practitioners.  A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse who has undergone extensive training, education, and residency to work as a psychiatrist under the supervision of a medical doctor who monitors the patient’s prescriptions and medical treatment. 

  • Muli-specialty psychiatrists. Some psychiatrists may specialize in more than one area of psychiatry or practice general psychiatry in addition to their specialty. Multi-specialty psychiatrists often divide their time between different specialties, venues, hospitals, and organizations, in addition to their own practice.

A day in the life of a psychiatrist 

A psychiatrist does much more than just see patients. Psychiatrists must continue their education and undergo professional development. The field of psychiatry is always evolving, and as new treatments, therapies, and medications develop, psychiatrists must stay current and educated on all of this information. Certain laws in each state mandate a certain number of hours psychiatrists must spend on continuing education.

All types of psychiatrists must also maintain patient records. It’s essential for a psychiatrist to ensure they’re making appropriate clinical notes in every patient’s file after their appointment. Most psychiatrists have many patients, so they must also spend time reviewing each patient’s case before appointments. This allows the psychiatrist to refresh their memory about the details of a patient’s case to resume treatment appropriately. 

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Choosing a mental health professional can be challenging

How do I choose a mental health professional?

With only 45,000 psychiatrists nationwide, it can be challenging to find one near you who is able to assist with your unique needs. People who have mental health concerns may sometimes begin by visiting their family doctor or primary care physician. A primary care practitioner can help patients with referrals and begin medications for some psychiatric conditions if necessary. Local community mental health clinics are also an option in many counties but may require wait times. If you live in a rural area, you may have to travel to a larger city to find a practicing psychiatrist. There are also some psychiatry services available online, although not all of these will allow psychiatrists to prescribe medication based on video appointments.

Navigating mental health disorders with online therapy

Some who seek assistance with mental health issues don’t want treatment involving medications or physical procedures. Some may prefer to speak with a psychologist or other mental health professional in an office. Some may prefer to speak to a therapist from home instead of traveling to an office for in-person sessions. In those cases, consulting a psychologist or online therapist may be a better choice. 

Online therapy has been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy and has many benefits over traditional in-person therapy. For example, many find that virtual therapy is a more affordable option for them. It’s also very convenient, as online services allow the patient to connect with a therapist from anywhere with an internet connection at any time. Because there is no commute required, speaking with a therapist online reduces barriers, as well.

Takeaway

In addition to prescribing medications, psychiatrists often use “talk therapy,” or psychotherapy, to treat their patients. Psychotherapy is a recommended treatment in many cases, and with sites like BetterHelp, it can be easy to find affordable and convenient counseling and psychotherapy online.
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