A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who studies, treats, and diagnoses mental health conditions. As with most parts of human functioning, the realm of mental health has its own professional medical sector. Psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals who may prescribe psychiatric medications, although some mental health professionals may prescribe medication under the direction of a psychiatrist. Family physicians and other general practice medical providers are authorized to prescribe psychiatric drugs, though they may not have the necessary training to diagnose all mental health conditions.

What Do Psychiatrists Do?

Whereas psychology attempts to understand the human mind and experience in terms of development, environment, and consciousness, psychiatry focuses much of its work on the medical aspects of the brain and its operation. Psychiatrists are typically able to help people consider issues such as depression or anxiety in relation to how the brain functions and what can happen when abnormalities or other issues occur. Most psychiatrists do not offer psychotherapy. Rather, they are consulted with in conjunction with a psychotherapist to help determine medication dosing and medical causes for psychiatric conditions. Some psychiatrists, however, also obtain advanced degrees in psychology and perform psychotherapy. Not all psychiatrists see people for treatment of mental health issues. Some focus solely on research, advocacy, and cross-cultural studies of psychiatric conditions.


What Kind of Training Do Psychiatrists Get?

Psychiatrists must attend medical school. After completing medical school, they complete a four-year psychiatric residency during which they learn about the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Psychiatric residencies are frequently completed at psychiatric hospitals, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, or on psychiatric wards at general hospitals.

What Can Psychiatrists Specialize In?

Psychiatrists may choose to specialize in a number of fields, including:

  • Neuropsychiatry – The study of the neurological basis of psychiatric conditions.
  • Addiction Psychiatry – The medical treatment of addiction.
  • Child Psychiatry – The treatment of psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents.
  • Forensic Psychiatry – The study of psychiatry and the law, which may include evaluation of defendants to determine if they are competent to stand trial.

Criticisms of Psychiatry

The field of psychiatry—and psychiatrists themselves—are perhaps the most frequently criticized mental health practitioners. Even among mental health specialists, psychiatrists may be criticized as being too quick to prescribe medication, too slow to look at lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to mental health conditions, and too wedded to the medical model of psychological treatment. Several advocacy groups have focused on perceived overmedication of children in particular. Both private practice and institutionally affiliated psychiatrists are likely to prescribe various medications for addressing mental health issues as they arise. While such medications are capable of helping some people to recover from difficult events or circumstances and may aid daily functioning, many modern professionals suggest that a combination of medication with good psychotherapy, or therapeutic services alone, can yield the best results.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA Concise Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Cherry, K. (n.d.). What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? About.com Psychology. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/psychotherapy/f/psychvspsych.htm
  3. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.