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What Does a Psychiatrist Do?

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Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are certified in treating mental and emotional disorders. Their work is similar to that of psychologists. Psychologists usually have advanced degrees in psychology and may only prescribe medications in a limited number of states, with additional training in pharmacology. Psychiatrists, however, go to medical school and are licensed to prescribe medication for their patients in all states.

The Work of Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are trained to understand the relationships between emotional and mental illnesses, genetics and physical illnesses that can all influence mental health. Working with individual patients, a psychiatrist will usually assess the patient's mental and physical health to provide a diagnosis, develop a treatment plan and then work with the patient toward better mental health. Psychiatrists can use a variety of treatments, including psychotherapy, medications and physical treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy.

When psychiatrists do prescribe medication, it is almost always in combination with some type of psychotherapy. Medications can include:

  • Antidepressants.
  • Antipsychotic medications.
  • Sedatives and anxiolytics.
  • Mood stabilizers.
  • Stimulants.

Just as there are different medications to help patients, psychiatrists have different forms of psychotherapy at their disposal. Psychotherapy involves talking with the patient to help him control or eliminate problematic thought patterns or behaviors. Psychotherapy sessions may be done one-on-one with the patient, in a group, as a family, or as a couple. Some psychiatrists offer psychoanalysis, which is an intensive individual therapy designed to aid the patient in understanding his issues, and it may take several years to complete. Others may offer cognitive behavior therapy, which is more goal-oriented and has a focus on problem-solving techniques.

Education and Training

To become a psychiatrist, first, you will need a bachelor's degree. Usually, this includes having a major in psychology or in any science, such as chemistry or biology. Then, you need to go to medical school, which takes four years. At medical school, you will need to take courses specifically for psychiatry, such as studying the classification of psychiatric disorders, as well as the diagnoses of these disorders and psychiatric treatments.

After earning your medical degree, you must then complete four years of psychiatric residency, usually at a hospital that offers clinical training with patients, combined with psychiatric research and scholarship. Once you graduate from a psychiatric residency program, you can then apply for a physician's license from your state, as well applying for a federal narcotics license from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. With both of these requirements completed, you can then call yourself a psychiatrist.

To maintain your license, most states require that you continue your education throughout your career. Courses are recommended through the American Psychiatric Association.

Specializations in Psychiatry

Like psychologists, psychiatrists have the option to treat patients, focus on research, or to do both. Within the field of psychiatry, there are many specialties to choose from. These include:

Addiction: This specialty offers treatment for people with drug and alcohol problems, or conducts research focused on addiction.

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: This specialty focuses on the mental health of children from birth to adulthood.

Neuromodulation: This specialty includes the treatment of psychiatric disorders through medication, psychotherapy as well as electroconvulsive therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Neuropsychology: This specialty focuses on the structure and function of the brain in relation to behavior and psychological processes.

Forensic Psychiatry: This specialty can include assessing accused criminals, assessing disability or other insurance claims, or assessing whether or not professionals are fit for duty.

Psychiatrists' Salaries

In 2017, psychiatrists made a mean salary of $216,090, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning that half made more than this amount and half made less. Those working in psychiatric hospitals or in hospitals working in the substance abuse arena, earned the least, with a mean salary of $205,200, while those working for local governments, excluding schools and hospitals made the most, with a mean salary of $254,170. Those working in physicians' offices, such as a private practice that treats patients, earned a mean salary of $222,460.


A published author and professional speaker, David Weedmark has been a hiring manager and recruiter for several companies and advises small businesses on technology. He has started three successful businesses, and has written hundreds of articles on careers and small business trends for newspapers, magazines and online publications including, Re/Max and American Express.

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