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What is Psychiatry: An Overview

Overview and Definition

Psychiatry is a specialized branch of medicine that involves the understanding, assessment, diagnosis, treatment, as well as prevention of mental disorders. Mental disorders, on the other hand, are illnesses that have significant and often devastating effect on an individual's emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral abilities.

What Psychiatrists do

Psychiatrists are specialist doctors who care for patients with mental health problems. Their role includes making assessment and diagnoses, investigating related medical conditions, and suggesting appropriate treatments including counseling, medication and lifestyle changes or interventions.

Psychiatrists are found in a variety of settings, including public and private hospital inpatient units, general practice settings, prison, universities and private practice. They work hand in hand with clinical psychologists, psychiatric nurses, psychotherapists, occupational therapists and social workers in treating mental health patients.

There are over 200 mental illnesses, but the most common types that psychiatrists treat are the following:

  • Mood or Affective Disorders. This is a range of mental health condition where sufferers may become extremely sad and disinterested in daily life, excessively happy, or have moods that rapidly fluctuate between the two extremes. Bipolar disorder and depression are two of the most common mood disorders.

  • Anxiety Disorders. A condition characterized by extreme feelings of nervousness that gets in the way of daily life.

  • Eating Disorders. Mental disorders that involve attitudes, emotions, and behaviors toward food and/or weight gain, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

  • Personality Disorders. Mental health and behavioral problems that result in strange personality traits that interfere with everyday life and socialization.

  • Addiction and Impulse Control Disorders. Mental illnesses where patients are unable to resist impulse or acts that are harmful to themselves and others including drug and alcohol abuse and gambling.

  • Psychotic Disorder. A type of mental illness that feature delusions and hallucinations, such as schizophrenia.

When to see a Psychiatrist

It is important to seek the help of a psychiatrist if you or any of your loved ones are developing signs and symptoms of mental disorder. Early intervention can immensely help in reducing the severity of the illness or even prevent the mental illness altogether. Among common signs of mental illness are as follows:

  • Social withdrawal and loss of interest in interacting with others
  • Inability to concentrate or to hold logical thoughts
  • Problems with memory and speech for no apparent reason
  • Heightened sensitivity to noise, sights, touch or smell and avoiding situations that may be over-stimulating
  • Apathy and loss of interest in any social interaction
  • A strange drop in functioning, as in work or school, and inability to perform previously normal tasks (i.e. quitting a hobby, failing grades, not reporting for work)
  • Heightened fear, paranoia, and suspiciousness
  • Exaggerated sense of power in understanding situations or events, belief in illogical ideas
  • Drastic changes in sleep or appetite
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Drastic and dramatic shifts in mood and feelings
  • A sense of unreality or being detached from surroundings and situations


Experiencing one or two of the aforementioned symptoms does not necessarily indicate mental illness. However, if several symptoms are felt altogether, mental illness may be apparent. If any or a few of these symptoms start to get in the way of leading a normal life, it is best to seek the help of a mental health professional. Furthermore, suicidal and homicidal thoughts as well as bizarre, violent bouts require immediate attention.

If left untreated, these symptoms may have high chances of progressing into a psychotic episode, which can involve delusions and hallucinations. Denial, shame or fear must be overcome to seek professional help. The earlier that treatment is sought, the better the chances of the patient to recover and reclaim his or her life.

Diagnosis and treatment in Psychiatry

Psychiatrists are physicians so they can perform a wide range of patient care, from suggesting medical laboratory tests, physical examination and psychological tests to assessing the patient's physical and mental state. Based on the results of tests, medical and psychological information, they will develop a treatment plan appropriate for the patient's condition.

Psychiatrists also use a wide variety of treatment including medication, psychotherapy, and other medical treatments. They administer psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, which involves talking sessions (individual or group) aimed at eliminating and controlling troubling symptoms that interfere with a patient's daily life. Some mental problems require the use of medications to correct possible imbalances in brain chemistry. A psychiatrist also monitors the effects of mental illness on other physical conditions, such as on high blood pressure and coronary problems.

Other treatments used include deep brain stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy, light therapy, and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, all of which use a machine to stimulate nerves in the brain and correct underlying issues.

Psychiatry training and certification

In order to become a psychiatrist, a medical degree must be obtained. This is followed by a four-year residency in psychiatry, which involves taking care of patients with a wide range of medical conditions. After four years of residency, many psychiatrists complete additional years of fellowship training. They must complete written and oral examinations, gain expansive skills in psychotherapy and have thorough knowledge of psychiatric medications and other treatment. Psychiatry sub-specializations include the following: Child and adolescent Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic or legal Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry, as well as Pain, Psychosomatic (mind and body) and Sleep medications.

Psychiatrists are different from psychologists as they are full-fledged medical doctors who can prescribe medications, conduct psychotherapy and perform other medical treatments. Psychologists, on the other hand, are mental health experts with a degree in clinical psychology who specialize in psychological testing, evaluation and treatment of mental disorders only through psychotherapy.

References:

  • American Psychiatric Association. “About Psychiatry” Available: http://www.psychiatry.org/about-apa--psychiatry/more-about-psychiatry
  • American Psychiatric Association. “Warning Signs of Mental Illness" http://www.psychiatry.org/mental-health/more-topics/warning-signs-of-mental-illness
  • Mental Health America. "Types of Mental Health Professionals." Available: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/types-mental-health-professionals
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Mental Health Professionals: Who They Are and How to Find One." Available: http://www2.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Helpline1/MentalHealthProfessionalsWhoTheyAreandHowtoFindOne.htm
  • The University of Sydney, Discipline of Psychiatry. “What Do Psychiatrists Do?” Available: http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/psychiatry/about/psychiatrists.php