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Psychiatry is a medical field concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health conditions. Whether you are dealing with a personal or family crisis, or a suffering with a mental or emotional problem, learning more about psychiatry can help.

This section provides an outline about psychiatry, including what psychiatrists do and where they work. It is common for people to seek psychiatric help for various mental health disorders, ranging from mild anxiety to schizophrenia. Learn about the variety of treatments used is psychiatry, including psychotherapy, medication, and other treatments.

If you’d like further information, this section also includes a professional support and self help resources page to help you through the journey.

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What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry is a medical field concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health conditions. A doctor who works in psychiatry is called a psychiatrist.

What do psychiatrists do?

Unlike other mental health professionals, such as psychologists and counsellors, psychiatrists must be medically qualified doctors who have chosen to specialise in psychiatry.  People seek psychiatric help for a number of mental health problems. The problems can be sudden, such as a panic attack or frightening hallucinations, or they can be anxious feelings that never seem to lift, causing everyday life to feel distorted or out of control. Usually though, psychiatrists work with people who have more severe disorders, such a schizophrenia, that may require some sort of medical treatment. This often, but not always, involves the prescription of medication.

Because they are physicians, psychiatrists can order or perform a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests which, combined with interviews with patients, help provide a picture of a patient's physical and mental state. A psychiatrist can take into account psychological and social factors and will tailor any treatment plan according to the needs of the individual.

What treatments do psychiatrists use?

Psychiatrists use a variety of treatments, including psychotherapy, medication, and other treatments. For more information, see Treatments Used in Psychiatry.

Where do psychiatrists work?

Psychiatrists work in a variety of settings, including private practices, clinics, general and psychiatric hospitals, community agencies, nursing homes, military settings, schools and universities, rehabilitation programs, emergency rooms, prisons, and many other places.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist?

Psychiatrists and psychologists both treat people with mental problems that vary widely by degree and type, from mild anxiety to depression. Both kinds of professionals can also conduct psychotherapy and research.

However, the most significant differences between the two professions are academic training and approach according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists . The suffix "-iatry" means "medical treatment," and "-logy" means "science" or "theory”. So psychiatry is the medical treatment of the psyche, and psychology is the science of the psyche.

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A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health problems. This means people in a wide variety of circumstances and with varying conditions may seek psychiatric help. The need for professional assistance may become obvious in the midst of a family or personal crisis. At other times, continued difficulty functioning at home, work or school may require careful assessment and treatment.

Mental disorders that may be diagnosed and treated by a psychiatrist include:

  • Anxiety and phobias
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Schizophrenia and paranoia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating
  • Personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Sleep Disorders, such as insomnia

To see a psychiatrist, you generally need to be referred by your doctor, who will direct you to a psychiatrist that specialises in the area of psychiatry that is related to your condition. If you wish to see a psychiatrist privately, you may be able to contact a psychiatric clinic directly to schedule an appointment. 

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Psychiatrists use a variety of treatments to treat a broad range of mental disorders and emotional difficulties. These include:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is a general term for treatment that involves a talking relationship between a therapist and patient. During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your moods, feelings, thoughts and behaviours. The goal of psychotherapy is to eliminate or control disabling or troubling symptoms so you can take control of your life and respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills. Depending on the extent of the problem, treatment may take just a few sessions over a week or two or may take many sessions over a period of years. There are several specific types of psychotherapy, each with its own approach. The type of psychotherapy that's right for you depends on your individual situation. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy, counseling, or psychosocial therapy.
  • Medications: After medical and psychological evaluations, psychiatrists can prescribe medications to help treat mental disorders.  Psychiatric medications can help correct imbalances in brain chemistry that are thought to be involved in certain mental disorders. Patients on long-term medication treatment will need to meet with their psychiatrist periodically in order to monitor the effects of medications. According to the American Psychiatric Association , psychiatrists most often prescribe medications in combination with psychotherapy.
  • Other treatments: On occasion, other treatments are also used by psychiatrists. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a medical treatment that involves applying electrical currents to the brain, is used most often to treat severe depression that has not responded to other treatments. Another example is light therapy, which is used to treat seasonal affective disorder through exposure to artificial light.

The majority of psychiatric treatments are carried out for a person as an outpatient, however, occasionally an admission to a specialist hospital is required.

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