Psychiatry Defined

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated July 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article on psychiatry and the definition of psychiatrists might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact  SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
The field of mental health care relies on a range of different professionals with widely varying skills and areas of expertise. One such mental health provider is a psychiatrist, a medical doctor responsible for directing the treatment plans of individuals seeking care by providing diagnoses, prescribing medication, and performing other functions. To understand the job of psychiatrists, it may be helpful to look at what they do, where they work, and the different fields in which they specialize. 

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What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors whose practice generally centers around the treatment of mental health disorders. As one of the few types of mental health professionals able to prescribe medication and diagnose mental health disorders, psychiatrists can play a key role in developing treatment plans for people seeking care. Below are some of the roles psychiatrists can take.

Primary mental health care provider

In a clinical setting, psychiatrists can serve as the first point of contact for individuals seeking care for mental health concerns. Typically, a psychiatrist is consulted when a client has reason to believe they’re living with a mental health condition. Often, the individual has been referred to a psychiatrist by a primary care provider, their insurance company, or another healthcare professional. However, some clients may seek care from psychiatrists on their own. 

When a client comes in for a consultation, the psychiatrist can provide screenings and assessments to evaluate them and determine whether a diagnosis is necessary. From there, they may direct the individual’s treatment plan, which might include medication, psychotherapy, and other modalities

Medical doctors

Medication management is often a modality used to treat mental disorders. After initially prescribing medication for an individual (if necessary), the psychiatrist may focus on evaluating its efficacy. This process often involves setting regular appointments to evaluate the individual’s progress and adjust the dosage or prescribe different psychiatric medications, if necessary. For individuals living with treatment-resistant conditions, psychiatrists may use other medical treatments, such as brain stimulation therapy, to alleviate symptoms. 

The ability to prescribe medication is often cited and defined as one of the significant differences between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Psychologists typically cannot prescribe medications and must refer clients they believe would benefit from a prescription for a mental or behavioral issue to a psychiatrist. Some states give psychologists the authority to prescribe certain medications. However, not all psychologists in these states are licensed to do so. Conversely, while they can conduct talk therapy, psychiatrists may refer clients to psychologists or other therapists for that form of treatment. 

In clinical practice, routine parts of the psychiatrist's job include gathering client details and keeping updated records of their medical history. These professionals can also help clients and their families cope with stress and crises, which may be directly related to the mental concern the individual is living with.

Psychiatrists may also advise an individual’s spouse, parents, extended family, and caregivers on their condition, treatment, and needs. They often consult and work with a client's primary care physician, therapists, and other professionals involved in treatment. The psychiatrist may also refer clients to other healthcare workers.

Researchers

The field of mental health relies on a thorough understanding of the symptoms, causes, and treatment of psychiatric disorders. Psychiatrists can utilize the expertise gained from their medical education and psychiatric training to facilitate this research. For example, professionals who conduct psychiatric research may evaluate the efficacy of medical treatments for behavioral disorders, study brain scans of people with depression, or identify links between sleep disruptions and anxiety.   

Other roles

In addition to providing care in clinics or practices, psychiatrists can perform varying functions in an array of settings. They can assess the competency of witnesses and defendants in court cases, help businesses evaluate their employees, and play a vital role in palliative care. 

Psychiatry career path

According to the American Psychiatric Association, to become a psychiatrist, one must first complete medical school. A medical education separates and defines psychiatrists as different from other types of mental health professionals, such as psychologists, who typically earn a PhD in clinical psychology. Doctors who decide to pursue psychiatry then typically spend at least four years in a residency training program. At the end of their psychiatry residency, psychiatry students can apply to the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology for certification as a psychiatrist. A few more years of subspecialty training may be required to be defined as a specific type of psychiatry or specialize in a particular area of psychiatry.

What conditions can psychiatrists diagnose and treat?

Psychiatrists can treat a range of mental health-related challenges, including but not limited to the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Bipolar disorder 
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Dementia and Alzheimer's disease
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia
  • Sleep disorders, such as insomnia
  • Substance use disorders
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Elimination disorders
  • Sleep-wake disorders
  • Gender dysphoria
  • Paraphilic disorders

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Psychiatrists also have the expertise to determine whether the physical aspects of an illness, such as a hormonal imbalance or an adverse reaction to a medication, are contributing to an individual’s mental health concerns. Conversely, they can ascertain whether there is an underlying psychological complication causing someone’s physical symptoms.

Psychiatry work environments

Psychiatrists can work in the public sector, delivering psychiatric services to individuals, couples, families, and groups in face-to-face or remote formats. Examples of settings in which psychiatrists commonly work include:

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Non-public practice
  • Businesses
  • Justice systems
  • Nursing homes
  • General hospitals
  • Emergency rooms
  • Military settings

Psychiatry specializations

Following general psychiatry training, psychiatrists can pursue further training and certification in a particular area of research or clinical practice. The following are specializations that psychiatrists may pursue.  

Addiction and substance use psychiatry

Addiction psychiatry helps individuals manage addiction-related mental health concerns, such as substance use disorders and behavioral addictions. An addiction psychiatrist may treat clients individually or in groups. They may also work with the individual's family to come up with a supportive rehabilitation framework. Addiction psychiatrists often work in rehabilitation facilities, though they may provide care in various other public settings. 

Child and adolescent psychiatry 

Also called pediatric psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry is a branch of medicine focused on treating children and teenagers with mental health concerns. Common challenges child and adolescent psychiatrists address include learning disabilities, changing moods, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders. 

Consultation-liaison psychiatry 

Providers who treat physical illnesses may not address potential comorbid mental health concerns. Because psychiatrists are trained to address mental and medical illnesses, they can work with care teams to provide more comprehensive treatment. Specialists in consultation-liaison psychiatry can help providers in various contexts, including primary care, emergency departments, or clinics. For example, a psychiatrist may be consulted to alleviate depression symptoms in individuals recovering from heart surgery.    

Geriatric psychiatry

A professional who specializes in geriatric psychiatry treats mental health concerns that can arise as a result of aging. Among these complications may be sleep disorders, depression, late-onset substance use disorder, and dementia. A geriatric psychiatrist may also address the emotional challenges that can accompany aging, which may be related to loneliness, physical health concerns, or cognitive impairment.

Improvements in life expectancy mean developing countries may now have larger aging populations than in past generations. This change has led to the projection of a vast increase in the demand for geriatric psychiatrists in the future. Already, numerous job opportunities are available for geriatric psychiatrists in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and personal practices.

Forensic (legal) psychiatry

Forensic psychiatry involves working within the court system and with government agencies to evaluate the mental health of witnesses, suspects, and inmates. Forensic psychiatrists are often called upon to conduct assessments of inmates seeking probation and help determine whether their release is prudent. 

Forensic psychiatrists are also often used as expert witnesses in criminal cases, responsible for helping decide whether someone is competent to stand trial or provide evidence. They may also help describe a suspect's mental state when they committed an offense.

In civil cases, the forensic psychiatrist's job may involve assessing the extent of medical health injuries and deciding on mental competency for guardianship. The field of forensic psychiatry has led to the development of further specializations, including:

Biological psychiatry

Biological psychiatry, or biopsychiatry, deals with the physical basis of mental disorders, focusing on the nervous system and brain chemistry. As such, these psychologists may not use psychotherapy, instead addressing a client's mental disorder with medical treatment or physical approaches, such as light therapy, electrical brain stimulation, exercise, and nutritional counseling. Conditions that biological psychiatrists treat can include psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, and substance use disorders.

Organizational and occupational psychiatry

This form of psychiatry is typically concerned with the mental state an individual brings to the workplace—and the effect the workplace has on the individual’s mental health. Organizational and occupational psychiatrists may assess and treat employees for work-related stress and its manifestations, such as hypertension. These professionals may also be asked to determine the mental health of a potential hire or an employee in line for a promotion. Other responsibilities may include performing assessments for disability insurance benefits and contributing to company policy and procedure development. 

Sleep medicine psychiatry

Sleep medicine has evolved as an area of specialization within several branches of medicine, including psychiatry. This form involves diagnosing and treating sleep disorders like insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and obstructive sleep apnea. Psychiatrists who practice sleep medicine may look at the amount and quality of a client's sleep and how this amount affects their mental health and ability to function in daily life. 

Emergency psychiatry

Emergency psychiatry involves psychiatrists working in various settings, including the emergency rooms of hospitals. One challenge for emergency psychiatrists is working with clients in immediate and severe danger due to the psychiatric patient's mental state.

Emergency psychiatrists are often called upon in cases of acute withdrawal symptoms in someone with an addiction. They may also address situations in which an individual is experiencing extreme intoxication or medical complications due to their mental health. Unlike some other psychiatrists, who can build relationships with their clients over time, emergency psychiatrists may always be treating new clients with acute mental health episodes. 

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Connecting with a mental health professional online
Research suggests that online therapy is an effective form of mental health care. In a review of 14 studies, which included over 900 total participants, researchers found that online therapy led to, on average, a 50% improvement in symptoms of conditions that included depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They concluded that online therapy can have positive long-term impacts when addressing a variety of mental health challenges.

Online therapy is a convenient and flexible way of connecting with the right mental health professional for you. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist based on your preferences, so you may have a better chance of working with someone who can address your specific concerns. All BetterHelp therapists have at least three years and 1,000 hours of hands-on experience, along with a master’s or doctorate degree in their field. 

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Takeaway

Psychiatrists can play an integral role in the treatment of mental health conditions. These professionals provide treatment, guidance, and a range of other services while working in varying arenas and addressing a broad array of mental health-related concerns. If, in addition to a psychiatrist, you’d like to work with a licensed therapist, consider utilizing an online therapy platform. You deserve the valuable support, resources, and guidance that can accompany comprehensive, professional mental health care.
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