What Is a Psychiatrist?

psychiatrist speaking to a client

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Psychiatrists are medical doctors who focus on diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health conditions. They usually have an MD (a doctor of medicine degree) or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine degree) after their name. Because of their medical training, psychiatrists can diagnose and treat mental health conditions with both therapy and medication.

What Do Psychiatrists Do?

If you are seeking treatment for a mental health condition, you will likely be working with a psychiatrist from the initial diagnosis all the way to ongoing treatment and care.

When psychiatrists make a diagnosis for a mental health condition, they use a combination of your personal and family medical history, laboratory testing, imaging scans, and psychological evaluations. They compare the results of these tests and your symptoms to the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which lists and describes the criteria for diagnosing mental health conditions.

Some of the most common mental health conditions that psychiatrists treat include: 

What Treatments Do Psychiatrists Use?

The primary difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist is that psychiatrists mainly use medication for treatment, while psychologists utilize psychotherapy (or, talk therapy) to help resolve mental health concerns. While psychiatrists can sometimes offer talk therapy, they receive less training in psychotherapy methods and techniques.

That said, as medical doctors, psychiatrists will likely prescribe you a medication to treat any mental health conditions you may have. Most medications used to treat mental health conditions target certain brain signals and chemicals to help reduce symptoms of the condition.

If you take medication for a mental health condition for a long period of time, you can expect to have regular check-ins with your psychiatrist. These check-ins help them to ensure that your medication is working and not giving you too many side effects. If you are having issues with these medications, your psychiatrist can try a different medication or treatment option to help you reduce symptoms.

Common Medications for Mental Health Conditions
Type Can treat:
Antidepressants Depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, panic disorder, OCD, personality disorders, and eating disorders
Antipsychotic medications Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and symptoms like delusion and hallucinations
Stimulants Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Mood stabilizers Bipolar disorder
Sedatives and anxiolytics Anxiety disorders and insomnia
Hypnotics Sleep problems

How Do You Become a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists typically complete 12-14 years of education after high school before they can begin practicing. The steps include:

  1. College (minimum of 4 years)
  2. Medical school (minimum of 4 years)
  3. Taking a written test to get a state license to practice medicine 
  4. Psychiatry residency (4 to 5 years)

During the first year of psychiatry residency, a newly graduated psychiatrist will train in a hospital, emergency, community clinic, or private office and help assist with treatment for people with a wide variety of mental health conditions under the mentorship of another psychiatrist. The following three years will focus on learning and practicing how to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

After that, psychiatrists may also have to take additional written and verbal tests to become certified to specialize in:

  • Addiction psychiatry or addiction medicine
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry (working with people in the legal or correctional system)
  • Geriatric psychiatry (working with older adults)
  • Hospice and palliative medicine (working with people with serious illnesses)
  • Pain medicine
  • Sleep medicine

Other psychiatrists train to specialize in emergency psychiatry, public and community psychiatry, and reproductive psychiatry, but there aren’t formal certifications for these areas. Some psychiatrists may also choose to combine a medical specialty with psychiatry, such as becoming a pediatrician (a medical doctor who cares for children) or a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Other psychiatrists may instead focus on psychiatric research, rather than providing clinical care.

What's The Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

It's normal to work with both a psychiatrist and a psychologist if you're receiving care for a mental health condition. However, there’s a couple differences. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications while psychologists are not, while psychologists receive significantly more training in behavioral functioning, which makes them better suited to offer therapy than psychiatrists.

Psychologists also receive their doctorate degree, but typically this is a PhD (doctor of philosophy degree) or PsyD (doctor of psychology degree). Because psychologists are not medical doctors, their primary form of treatment is psychotherapy and behavioral intervention to help reduce symptoms.

How Can You Find a Psychiatrist?

About half of the psychiatrists in the United States work in private practice—or, their own office—to provide services and care. Other settings in which a psychiatrist may work include:

  • Community clinics or agencies
  • Hospitals (general and psychiatric)
  • Student health centers at universities or colleges
  • Courts and prisons
  • Nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and hospice programs
  • Industry, government, or military settings

Finding a psychiatrist is similar to the typical process of finding a mental health provider. You may want to ask your primary care provider for a referral, check with your insurance for in-network providers, or search online directories for a psychiatrist that is best suited for your needs. Once you’ve identified a psychiatrist you want to work with, make sure to ask them about which insurances they cover, what they specialize in, and the types of treatment they provide.

A Quick Review

If you’re seeking care for a mental health condition, it’s likely that you will see a psychiatrist for your diagnosis and treatment. They can provide psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both to help reduce your symptoms. When looking for psychiatrists, the most important thing is to find a provider who you feel comfortable with, who offers the right treatment options for you, and who understands your needs and condition.

It's not always easy to find the perfect fit with a healthcare provider right away—and that's OK. A good place to start is by talking to your primary healthcare provider for any referrals or suggestions they may have and looking for psychiatrists that your insurance provider may cover.

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5 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Types of mental health professionals.

  2. ​​American Psychiatric Association. What is psychiatry?

  3. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health by the numbers.

  4. American Psychological Association. What is the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers?

  5. ​​American Psychiatric Association. What is psychotherapy?

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