What is a Psychiatrist?

Published on: 07 Jan 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
woman sitting on chair taking notes

A psychiatrist is someone who specializes in the field of mental health. Psychiatrists, unlike a therapist or a clinical psychologist, go through medical school to earn a medical degree with additional training in psychiatry. They understand and can assess and treat both mental health as well as physical conditions. 

“Psychiatrists are doctors with additional training and fellowship to care for your brain and help with emotional and behavioral struggles.”

Talkspace Psychiatrist Muhammad Munir, MD

A psychiatrist is a mental health professional that is trained to explore the links between physical and mental health so they can create the best treatment plan for their patients’ needs. They can prescribe medication, which is a significant difference between them and therapists. What do psychiatrists do beyond this? Read on to find out.  

What Does a Psychiatrist Do?

Psychiatrists are similar to other physicians in the medical world in that they’re able to order tests for diagnostic purposes and perform physical exams on their patients.

A psychiatrist or online psychiatrist might be an independent provider, or they may be part of an entire mental health team. Teams consist of social workers, primary care physicians, psychiatric nurses, and occupational therapists in addition to the psychiatrist.

Psychiatrists use the American Psychiatric Association (APA’s) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to direct their diagnoses and treatment plans. They also utilize standardized psychological tests to help them determine the best route for mental health care. 

What Can a Psychiatrist Help With?

To fully understand what do psychiatrists do, you need to first know what they can help patients with. Psychiatrists first assess symptoms and diagnose mental health conditions. Then, once diagnosed, they can treat a number of mental health conditions through various methods of medication and therapy. 

Some psychiatrists also use different forms of talk therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy. However, a good portion of psychiatrists focus primarily on diagnosis and medication management, so make sure to clarify with your psychiatrist on whether they offer talk therapy. If they do not provide talk therapy,  they might then refer someone to a therapist for ongoing psychotherapy treatment. If you’re having second thoughts on how to open up to your specialist, read our guide on how to talk to a psychiatrist

Psychiatrists can diagnose and help manage conditions including: 

Anxiety 

When treating anxiety, a psychiatrist may prescribe a medication for anxiety like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or suggest talk therapy, or encourage patients to do both. 

Bipolar disorder

Psychiatrists can help somebody with bipolar disorder address the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they have as a result of a bipolar disorder diagnosis. Psychiatrists prescribe medications to help manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder. 

Eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia

Psychiatric support in treating eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia can be beneficial. Ultimately, the treatment plan depends on the type of eating disorder that needs to be dealt with, but generally a combination of therapy, nutrition education, and potentially medication can be most effective.

Depression

Psychiatrists can work with patients who have depression to offer therapy and prescribe antidepressants and other medication for depression as needed.

Hallucinations

Certain psychiatric conditions might result in hallucinations. A psychiatrist can offer treatment to manage hallucinations. Treatment often includes psychiatric medication.

Insomnia or other sleeping issues

If you’re struggling with insomnia or have any other sleep issues, a psychiatrist can help you through behavioral therapy or counseling, as well as in some cases, medication. Psychiatrists will also be able to identify any other mental health conditions they find that could potentially be contributing to your sleep issues.

Addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or other behaviors

Psychiatrists can help people who struggle with addiction. One who specializes in alcohol and drug addiction will generally have a subspecialty training that covered addiction and substance abuse treatment options.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be effectively treated by a psychiatrist who’s trained to offer coping techniques and management tools. They also might decide to prescribe psychiatric medication.

Suicidal thoughts

Psychiatrists know how to intervene if someone is having suicidal thoughts. They can determine the severity of someone’s mental state and decide the best course of action to help keep them safe from acting on their suicidal ideation.

Self-harm

Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is something psychiatrists can address through evaluation and treatment.

Violent outbursts

Psychiatrists can help people who have violent outbursts by using various forms of therapy, including psychodynamic therapy, which is an approach that teaches people how to use self-reflection to better understand the root of their anger or outbursts.

Obsessive thoughts

Psychiatrists can help people who experience obsessive thoughts by focusing on changing behaviors and thought patterns.

Feeling agitated or unable to calm down

Using techniques that help reduce stress or calm someone down are effective ways that psychiatrists help people who constantly feel agitated.

Negative thought patterns

Psychiatrists are trained to help their patients identify negative thought patterns so they can stop them before they become intrusive.

Inability to concentrate

For those with an inability to concentrate, certain techniques can be taught by a psychiatrist to allow their patients to maintain focus and improve concentration. 

Body image issues

A psychiatrist can use an assessment to first determine where the negative body image is coming from and how it developed. Then they might use a form of therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help address the issue. CBT helps people identify and then reverse negative self talk that can result in their body image issues. 

Hyperactivity

For somebody with hyperactivity issues or who’s been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychiatrists might prescribe medication, offer psychotherapy treatments, or suggest both.

Delusional thinking

Psychiatrists working with patients who share delusions need to address those experiences carefully and respond in a way that won’t cause their patient to become defensive.  

Memory problems

A psychiatrist can perform memory evaluations and then treat any psychiatric problems or symptoms related to things that cause memory problems such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Severe stress

To treat severe stress, psychiatrists will work with patients to create a treatment and management plan. Included in the psychological treatment for stress might be medication, therapy, and therapy procedures like electroconvulsive therapy. 

Psychiatrist Tools & Approaches

Psychiatrists are extremely well trained and skilled at managing and helping their patients. They have a multitude of strategies, techniques, and approaches they can apply to mental health conditions.

Procedures

Psychiatrists work between the two worlds of neurology and psychology. Neurology is the study of the nervous system and brain. Psychology, on the other hand, is the study of how the mind and behaviors work together.

Psychiatrist assess their patients mental health conditions and symptoms by:

  • Evaluating how their symptoms fit into their life history, family history, or outside events that have affected them.
  • Assessing how physical trauma, a disease, or substance use has impacted their behavior and/or mental state.

Mental health examination

Mental status examinations (MSE) are one way a psychiatrist conducts a clinical assessment on a patient. They evaluate through observation how a person’s psychological function is performing in terms of: 

  • Behavior
  • Attitude
  • Judgment
  • Cognition
  • Mood
  • Perception
  • Thought processes 

“The most important and common tools for psychiatrists are interviewing and mental status examinations.”

Talkspace Psychiatrist Muhammad Munir, MD

A number of psychological tests are used to interpret symptoms and determine how severe conditions are. The DSM-5 is regularly used by psychiatrists to figure out if symptoms meet any diagnostic criteria for a specific mental health condition. 

Tests can include:

Diagnosis

Differential diagnoses are made to rule out other possible causes before a mental health condition diagnosis is made. Psychiatrists use several biomedical tests, including:

  • Physical examinations
  • Brain imaging studies
  • Electroencephalograms (EEG)
  • Blood tests
  • Drug screenings
  • STD screenings

Medication

Medication is often a component in a psychiatrist’s care. Psychiatrists are very well-trained in how drugs work and how they function in the body. Some common medication psychiatrists tend to use include:

  • Antipsychotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Anxiolytics
  • Depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Mood stabilizers

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can be used to enhance both the diagnosis and treatment of many mental health conditions. During psychotherapy sessions, patients will be encouraged to discuss their feelings and problems, look at their behaviors and thoughts, and focus on relationships.

Psychiatrists want to help people solve the problems in their life through the exploration of behaviors, past experiences, thought patterns, and both internal and external influences that might be contributing to the stress they’re facing.

It is important to note that not all psychiatrists offer in-depth psychotherapy. Many specialize in the diagnosis of mental health conditions and medication management. Make sure to clarify with your psychiatrist on what they offer at their practice.

Additional treatments

In addition to the above forms of treatment and approaches, psychiatrist may also utilize:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — delivering currents to the brain.
  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS) — implanting electric probes to stimulate specific areas of the brain.
  • Psychosurgery — surgical techniques used to cut off circuits in the brain.

Types of Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists can choose from several subspecialties that would allow them to focus on a specific aspect of psychiatry. Some of them include:

  • Addiction psychiatry: Deals with substance abuse and addiction
  • Geriatric psychiatry: Focuses on psychiatric or mental health issues in the elderly
  • Adolescent or child psychiatry: Deals primarily with child or adolescent psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry: Assesses and treats offenders in secure hospitals or prisons
  • Occupational psychiatry: Using a psychiatric knowledge to help with day today processes in functions in the workplace 
  • Neuropsychiatry: Deals with mental and emotional disturbances in people who have disordered brain function
  • Psychosomatic medicine: Relatively new sub-specialty dealing with complex diagnoses and treatment for psychiatric disorders that are worsened by a patient’s emotional state

Finding a Psychiatrist With Talkspace

If you’ve ever wondered what is a psychiatrist or what do psychiatrists do, you should now have a better understanding of the practice and what they can do to help. If you’re looking for an online psychiatrist to work with, Talkspace has skilled, experienced prescribers who are ready to evaluate your needs and give you the personalized mental health care and treatment you’ve been looking for.   

Sources:

1. What Is Psychiatry?. Psychiatry.org. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-psychiatry-menu/. Accessed December 10, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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