Understanding The Psychiatry Definition

Updated March 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While there was once more of a stigma around mental health, as time goes by that stigma diminishes, and more and more people seek out the help they need. 

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Between media portrayals and social stigma, people may have specific associations with the mental health industry. 

Although talk therapy with a counselor is a generally successful means of treating mental illnesses, other elements of the mental health equation are very often misunderstood.

One of these elements is psychiatry. Despite its relevance in the mental health field, people often cannot define psychiatry correctly, and may not realize the crucial role that psychiatrists can play in improving mental health.

What Is Psychiatry?

When you define psychiatry, it is important to remember that it is an area of medicine, much like oncology or cardiology. For that reason, psychiatry looks at mental health from a physiological standpoint.

But what is psychiatry? Psychiatry is the medical study of mental illnesses and disorders, which psychiatrists then attempt to diagnose and treat.

Derived from the Greek root words psykhe and iatreia, which mean "mind" and "healing" respectively, psychiatry focuses especially on identifying and addressing the mental health needs of an individual.

The various ways that psychiatrists treat disorders run the gamut from recommending talk therapy to administering electroconvulsive therapy. However, because they are medical doctors, psychiatrists are most well known for their ability to prescribe medication to their patients to treat disorders like depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

To diagnose and treat mental illness, a psychiatrist can meet with a potential patient to discuss the symptoms that they are experiencing. Psychiatrists will typically order or conduct a physical examination as well. This examination can rule out medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, metabolic syndrome, or syphilis, which can all present with symptoms that can match a variety of mental illnesses.

After excluding physical causes, the psychiatrist may determine what they believe the problem to be, as well as what treatment they think could be the most effective for that particular patient. Depending on a patient's disorder, their psychological state, and their lifestyle, a psychiatrist may prescribe a course of treatment.

How Is Psychiatry Different From Psychology?

The psychiatry definition may get confused with definitions of psychology and social work. However, understanding exactly what psychiatry is may require an understanding of the ways that mental health professionals diagnose and treat mental illnesses, as well as the training they have received. These factors differ greatly between classes of mental health professionals.

As mentioned, psychiatrists are medical doctors. This means that they have completed medical school, received a medical license, and trained in a hospital. Psychiatrists also often complete other certifications that reassure potential patients of their status as a reputable practitioner.

Because they have received medical training, psychiatrists can diagnose and treat mental illnesses from a medical perspective. Much like a general practitioner attempting to diagnose a psychical ailment, a psychiatrist can guide patients through a variety of assessments and conversations that can help reveal what type of condition needs to be treated. And, like a medical doctor, psychiatrists can choose from a whole host of treatments, including medication. 

While we choose to share and update information about medication, these articles are just for informational purposes. Never stop or start taking medication without first consulting a mental health professional.

Psychologists, on the other hand, will typically have a terminal degree in their area of study, but will not have attended medical school or completed a residency at a psychiatric hospital. These mental health professionals can assess and diagnose individuals but do not have a medical perspective on the process. Because of this, psychologists cannot prescribe medication to their patients. Instead, psychologists often use talk therapy to address the symptoms of mental illness.

Although psychologists and psychiatrists may differ in the ways that they handle mental health, they typically work together as a team when treating a patient. Psychologists often refer patients to psychiatrists for medication, and psychiatrists often direct patients toward psychologists for talk therapy. The cooperation of both practitioners can be crucial to treating certain mental illnesses effectively and holistically.

Are You Experiencing Psychiatric Distress?

How You Become A Psychiatrist

Becoming a psychiatrist requires just as much training as becoming any other type of doctor.

First, an aspiring psychiatrist must obtain a bachelor's degree. Typically, students choose degrees in scientific fields, like biology or chemistry. Degrees completed within a pre-med track are also highly encouraged.

After completing their undergraduate course of study, students can complete four academically demanding years of medical school. During this time, they may learn about the body, pharmacology, and pathology in rigorous labs and clinical experiences. After this, doctors complete an additional four-year residency at a hospital, where they may begin focusing on psychiatry as a specialty.

Additionally, psychiatrists may obtain other focused training in specific sub-sections of psychiatry including adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, or psychiatric research.

Psychiatrists are also required to gain a state license to practice and are generally encouraged to become certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This certification states that their psychiatrists are qualified to treat a host of psychiatric disorders by completing lab tests, prescribing medications, and providing whatever treatment is necessary. Board-certified psychiatrists can also provide intervention and consultant services.

After this, psychiatrists can start meeting with and treating patients. Psychiatrists must maintain high standards of ethics due to this field's delicacy and medical origins.

Why People Visit Psychiatrists

The reasons why people visit psychiatrists are diverse and varied but tend to result from a disorder that is reducing their quality of life. Patients may be experiencing:

Mood Disorders: Mood disorders, as the name suggests, relate to a person's ability to control their moods. Mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder, often result in prolonged feelings of sadness or mania, as well as extreme mood instability.

Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder, can reduce a person's quality of life by causing feelings of fear and dismay, even when there is no stimulus. These disorders often include physical symptoms.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Often referred to as OCD, this disorder can result in chronic anxiety about specific things. Patients with OCD often feel compelled to do specific actions or rituals to manage their anxiety around these obsessions.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This disorder is typically the result of a painful occurrence or assault. It tends to result in hyper-vigilance, nightmares, and extreme anxiety.

Psychotic Disorders: Psychotic disorders, like schizophrenia, can alter an individual's understanding of reality. Symptoms include hallucinations, which cause people to hear or see things that don't exist, and delusions, which result in a skewed perception of reality.

Personality Disorders: These disorders, which can include antisocial personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder, result in inflexibility of thought and strained interpersonal relationships.

Often, patients visit psychiatrists when intervention by a therapist has not been successful in treating their disorder. 


Understanding the psychiatry definition is often one of the first steps in seeking mental health care. However, receiving psychiatric care can be expensive, overwhelming, or inaccessible. If care from a medical doctor is out of reach, there is still a way to seek professional help.

BetterHelp can set you up with affordable, convenient counseling that can give you the care you need. With over 1,500,000 registered users and 2500 licensed counselors, BetterHelp is a service you can trust. With a variety of flexible, digital counseling options, BetterHelp can provide help that is discrete and available on your time. Users of BetterHelp can communicate with their counselors by exchanging messages, instant messaging, talking on the phone, or through video conferencing.

Studies show that when it comes to treating mental illnesses like PTSD, bipolar, anxiety, depression, and more, online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is just as effective as in-person CBT in reducing psychological distress and treating symptoms. So if you are looking for relief from mental illness or stress, then reach out to BetterHelp.

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