Understanding The Psychiatry Definition

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated October 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
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Psychiatry can be a helpful field of study for many, supporting their understanding of self and the world around them. Beyond addressing mental health concerns directly for many, the field can offer justification for why we might act how we do, and what we can do to change patterns of behavior. 

Read on to learn more about the practical applications and definition of psychiatry. 

What Is Psychiatry?

When you define psychiatry, it can be important to remember that it can be a helpful area of medicine— much like oncology or cardiology. For that reason, psychiatry might look at mental health from both a physiological and emotional standpoint, rather than from a perspective that is strictly academic.

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

It is thought to be derived from the Greek root words psykhe and iatreia, which can mean "mind" and "healing" respectively.

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

To start the process of diagnosing and treating a mental health condition, a psychiatrist might first meet with a potential patient to discuss the symptoms that they may be experiencing. Psychiatrists then might 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 then 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 definition of psychiatry can get confused with definitions of psychology and social work. However, understanding exactly what each is can support many in seeking the correct form of treatment, possibly reducing barriers to care in the process. 

As mentioned, psychiatrists are generally considered to be medical doctors. In many cases, this means that they have completed medical school, received a medical license and have trained in a hospital. Psychiatrists might also complete other certifications, classes and programs that can reassure potential patients of their status as a reputable practitioner, such as you might see in the case of continuing education units (CEUs).

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 treatment options depending on patient needs, including medication or other forms of therapy. 

We do want to note: All BetterHelp articles are generally written for informational purposes. Please avoid stopping or starting medication without first consulting a mental health professional.

Psychologists, on the other hand, will generally have a terminal degree in their area of study, but will not have attended formal medical school or completed residency at a psychiatric hospital. These mental health professionals can assess and diagnose individuals, but do not generally have a medical perspective on the process. Because of this, psychologists won’t necessarily prescribe medication to their patients. Instead, psychologists might use other tools or treatment options (such as talk therapy) to address the symptoms of mental illness.

Although psychologists and psychiatrists may differ in the ways that they address patient mental health needs, they can work together as a team when treating a patient. For example: Psychologists might refer patients to psychiatrists for medication, and psychiatrists may direct patients toward psychologists for talk therapy. 

The cooperation of both practitioners can be crucial to treating certain mental health conditions effectively and holistically.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Are You Experiencing Psychiatric Distress?

How To Become A Psychiatrist

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

First, an aspiring psychiatrist might obtain a bachelor's degree. Interested students might choose degrees in scientific fields, such as biology or chemistry. Degrees completed within a pre-med track might also be highly encouraged.

After completing their undergraduate course of study, students can then 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 may complete an additional four-year residency at a hospital, where they may begin focusing on psychiatry as a specialty.

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

Psychiatrists might also be 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 generally 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. 

Why People Might Visit Psychiatrists

The reasons why people might visit psychiatrists can vary—and they may result from a disorder that is actively reducing their quality of life. For example, patients may be experiencing:

Mood Disorders: Mood disorders, as the name suggests, can relate to a person's ability to regulate their moods. Mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder, can also  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 if there is no stimulus. These disorders might often include physical symptoms.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Often referred to as OCD, this disorder can result in excessive focus about specific things, as well as overwhelming compulsions. Patients living with OCD might often feel compelled to do specific actions or rituals to manage their nervousness and feelings around these obsessions.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This disorder can be the result of trauma or assault. It can result in hyper-vigilance, nightmares and extreme nervousness.

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

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

Patients may visit psychiatrists when intervention by a therapist has not been successful in treating their disorder.

How Can Online Therapy Help Those Considering Psychiatric Care? 

BetterHelp can support you in finding affordable and possibly more convenient counseling that can give you the care you’re looking for. 

Online therapy services (like 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. Many may find this method of care to be more approachable than in-person therapy, which means that this form of support can be more convenient to some. 

Is Online Therapy Effective? 

Studies have found data that suggests that when it comes to treating mental illnesses like PTSD, bipolar, anxiety disorders, depression and more, online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be just as effective as in-person CBT in reducing psychological distress and treating symptoms. 


Understanding the psychiatry definition can be one of the first steps for many in seeking mental health care. However, receiving psychiatric care can be expensive, overwhelming or inaccessible to some. If care from a medical doctor is out of reach, there can still be a way to seek professional help. Online therapy, for example, can make treatment more convenient for many. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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