Unlike most psychologists, psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medications.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental health conditions and emotional problems.
Psychiatrists receive general medical education and training about the body, as well as training in how conditions of the body relate to mental and emotional illness.
Because of this training, they are often most qualified to understand whether a patient's mental and physical distress is due to physical or psychological factors.
As medical doctors, psychiatrists can prescribe medications.
While the American Psychiatric Association states that about half of the 42,000 psychiatrists in the United States have a private practice, many also work in other settings, such as:
- General and psychiatric hospitals
- Community agencies
- Courts and prisons
- Nursing homes
- Industry, government, and military settings
- Schools and universities
- Rehabilitation programs
- Emergency rooms
What Do Psychiatrists Treat?
Psychiatrists diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions that affect a person's mental and emotional health.
They can diagnose, treat, and help manage conditions ranging from anxiety, eating disorders, and depression to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse.
These conditions include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Schizophrenia — in which people experience hallucinations, delusions, and erratic thinking and behavior
- Substance abuse disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder — characterized by extreme swings in mood, energy level, and ability to think clearly
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — ongoing distress that may be caused by previous military combat, assaults, or accidents
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — characterized by unwanted, repetitive thoughts and urges
Psychiatrists Training and Education
After receiving their undergraduate degree, aspiring psychiatrists attend medical school for four years, then complete a year of training (internship) in a hospital where they care for patients with various medical conditions.
They must then spend at least three years in a psychiatry residency program where they learn about neurology, the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions, different forms of psychotherapy, and psychiatric medications, as well as other treatments.
Psychiatrists can become board certified if they pass an examination set by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Becoming board certified is required for anyone who wants to become certified in a subspecialty of psychiatry.
Subspecialties of psychiatry include:
- Child and adolescent psychiatry
- Geriatric psychiatry
- Forensic (legal) psychiatry
- Addiction psychiatry
- Hospice and palliative medicine (end-of-life care)
- Community and public health psychiatry
- Emergency psychiatry
- Military psychiatry
What's the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?
Like a psychiatrist, a psychologist studies the brain and people's thoughts, emotions, and feelings.
But a psychiatrist's primary focus is often on disorders in which there is a chemical imbalance, while a psychologist mainly focuses on the thoughts, feelings, and general mental health of patients.
The two professions differ in their education and training requirements.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who obtain an MD, while psychologists obtain a doctorate degree that is either a PhD, a PsyD, or an EdD.
Because of these differences in training, psychiatrists can prescribe medications, while most psychologists can't (three U.S. states – Illinois, New Mexico, and Louisiana – allow psychologists to obtain advanced training in psychopharmacology, which permits them to prescribe medications).
Psychologists tend to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology, then go on to complete a master's degree and a doctorate degree in psychology.
To become a licensed psychologist, most states require a two-year internship.
Psychologists can go on to receive additional schooling and licensing in order to specialize in a particular field of psychology.
They can also become experts in psychoanalysis, which is a non-drug mental health treatment technique.
Despite their differences, psychiatrists and psychologists often work together or refer patients to one another to suit the needs of their patients.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Psychiatry: is it for me?; American Psychiatric Association.
- Psychologist vs Psychiatrist – What's the Difference; European Foundation for Psychologists and Analysts.
- Taking a Subspecialty Exam; American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
- Mental Health Conditions; National Alliance on Mental Illness.