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Psychiatry is a health care profession that helps patients with their mental health. People who practice psychiatry, called psychiatrists, have specialized training in mental health and the treatment of psychological disorders. Some people specialize in a particular focal area, such as child psychiatry or forensic psychiatry.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the definition of a psychiatrist is, “A medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health.” They diagnose, treat and otherwise help manage and raise awareness about mental illnesses.
Psychiatrists should not be confused with psychologists. A psychologist is a person who studies how the mind works and how functions in the human brain influence certain behaviors. They may treat mental health conditions through psychotherapy but do not prescribe medications. On the other hand, as a medical doctor, a psychiatrist may prescribe medications to patients.
Psychiatry is where medicine and psychology meet. While psychology is the study of how the human mind works, psychiatry uses evidence-based medication methods to treat the mind when its normal function is disrupted.
Since the brain is an organ connected to all other parts of the body, psychiatry works to diagnose, treat and prevent mental illnesses as other doctors do for other aspects of whole-body health.
There are several steps in becoming a licensed psychiatrist. Since it is a medical profession, the first step is to complete medical school. After that, a person will need extra training in psychiatry, and they will need to pass the necessary exams and gain the required licensure to practice.
To pursue psychiatry, a person will need a medical degree. The degree can be either a medical doctorate (M.D.) or a doctorate of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). To be accepted into medical school, someone will first need a bachelor’s degree, usually in science, and score high enough on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Many people intending to apply to medical school take specific pre-medical courses while they are an undergraduate.
After completing medical school and obtaining a medical license, someone will need to complete four years of residency training in psychiatry. The first year of this residency is usually in a hospital setting, where the person will be exposed to a wide range of mental health disorders and related medical conditions. For the next three years, the person will usually focus their training more specifically on diagnosing and treating mental illnesses in a clinic, including learning psychotherapy techniques.
Someone who wishes to become a psychiatrist will need a state license to practice medicine before they can become a psychiatry resident. To attain this license, the person will need to pass a written exam.
Although it is voluntary, most psychiatrists take a written and oral examination through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) to become a board-certified psychiatrist. To stay certified, someone will need to renew this certification every 10 years.
There are several specific areas of psychiatry that an individual can focus their training on and practice in. A psychiatrist can also become certified by the ABPN in these subspecialties.
A psychiatrist can also focus their practice in specific illnesses or topics, such as eating disorders or sexual psychiatry.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the estimated average annual salary for psychiatrists in the United States is $220,380. Their average hourly wage is $105.95.
How much money a psychiatrist makes can vary based on several factors, such as the:
Pay for psychiatrists also varies by specialty. The average annual salary and pay range for specialties are approximately:
The services that a psychiatrist can provide are like those of other medical doctors but focused on mental health. These include screening for and diagnosing mental illnesses, plus providing various types of treatment. A psychiatrist can provide counseling to their patients, prescribe medications and sometimes operate specialized equipment for identifying and treating mental disorders.
The first stage of helping a patient’s mental health is to screen them and diagnose any mental health disorders they may have. A psychiatric evaluation usually involves meeting with the patient in person and asking a series of questions. A review of their medical history, including any past mental health concerns, is included.
Psychiatrists in the United States and many other countries use the American Psychiatric Association’s guidebook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), as their main source of guidelines for diagnosing mental health conditions.
Some psychiatrists may also use diagnostic and treatment guidelines from other major health authorities such as The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders from the World Health Organization (WHO). Committees of psychiatric experts periodically update these documents based on the latest, best research available.
As medical doctors, psychiatrists are qualified to write prescriptions for pharmaceutical drugs and other medications. Just as with other medical conditions, there is a wide array of medicine available to treat mental disorders, with different benefits and side effects. A psychiatrist needs to stay up-to-date on current medications and prescribing recommendations so they know what they should and should not give their patients.
Types of medications that a psychiatrist may work with include:
Psychiatrists also understand and can recommend any over-the-counter medications that may help, including dietary supplements. It is important that they understand how other non-psychiatric medications work so they can manage psychiatric care with other medications a patient may be taking.
Psychotherapy is sometimes also called talk therapy. This type of non-medication therapy can be very effective in managing the symptoms of mental disorders. During a therapy session, a psychiatrist can help their patients learn healthy coping strategies, develop positive ways of thinking and acting, and learn to manage their condition outside of therapy time.
Psychiatrists can become skilled in a variety of psychotherapy techniques, including:
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) used to be called electroshock therapy, but this technique is much more precise currently. Doctors use a specialized machine to create a brief electric shock through a patient’s head, inducing a medically controlled seizure. During this procedure, the patient is under anesthesia and closely monitored.
Usually, ECT is only used for severe cases of depression, anxiety and other diseases where medication and psychotherapy have been ineffective. It is one of the most successful treatments for severe depression and anxiety.
Many online organizations directly hire or provide a platform for tele-psychology, including BetterHelp, Talkspace, DotCom Therapy and Smart IOP. They can also search job boards or inquire with local hospitals, clinics, rehab facilities and mental health organizations about potential telehealth job openings.
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American Psychiatric Association. “What is Psychiatry?” (n.d.) Accessed May 15, 2019.
Association of American Medical Colleges. “Admission Requirements.” (n.d.) Accessed May 15, 2019.
Association of American Medical Colleges. “Taking the MCAT® Exam.” (n.d.) Accessed May 15, 2019.
American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc. “Become Certified.” (n.d.) Accessed May 15, 2019.
American Association of Sleep Medicine. “The Path to Sleep Medicine.” (n.d.) Accessed May 15, 2019.
United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018: 29-1066 Psychiatrists.” March 29, 2019. Accessed May 15, 2019.
Psychology Career Center. “Psychiatrist Salary Information.” February 7, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2019.
Silverman JJ, et al. “The American Psychiatric Association Practice Guidelines for the Psychiatric Evaluation of Adults.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, August 1, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” May 2013. Accessed April 20, 2019.
World Health Organization. “The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines.” 1992. Accessed May 15, 2019.
Parekh R, Givon R. “What is Psychotherapy?” American Psychiatric Association, January 2019. Accessed May 15, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “Find a Psychiatrist.” (n.d.) Accessed May 15, 2019.
Rao, Rahul. “What are the subspecialties of psychiatry?” BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 2005. Accessed May 17, 2019.