Many people use the terms psychiatrist and psychologist as synonyms, but there is a great difference in the professions and the range of treatment options they provide. Psychiatrists are fully trained as medical doctors first and then they complete specialized training in psychiatry or the treatment of mental and emotional illnesses and disorders. They can provide psychotherapy and counseling and they can also prescribe medications. Psychologist cannot prescribe medications and they are not typically medical doctors although they may have a doctoral degree in psychology.
The role of psychiatrist is to help individuals with mental health issues that can include treatment of depression, addictions, behavioral, cognitive disorders, perceptual disorders and related health conditions. Many people are recommended to psychiatric services through family doctors; however, individuals may also make an appointment on their own if they are concerned about mental health issues affecting their life. Generally, most patients are treated in an outpatient setting, obtaining both medication and psychotherapy or perhaps just therapy from the professional. In some situations, particularly with significant cognitive, emotional or perceptual types of disorders there may be a requirement for inpatient treatment.
For most individuals the treatment plan will start with a comprehensive mental health and status examination. This may also include the requirement of medical health tests such as blood work and urinalysis to rule out different medical conditions that could be impacting on mental health. A suicide and risk assessment can also be completed if there is a concern the individual may be likely to consider harming themselves or someone else. During this initial interview the psychiatrist will also conduct a very in depth review of the individual’s medical, personal and family history. Not all of this initial meeting is conducted with the doctor, an assistant or staff member may collect the data for the doctor’s review, especially in larger hospitals, clinics and treatment facilities.
Once the initial meeting and assessment is completed a treatment plan will be developed. This may include many different types of options and components. In situations where there is addiction or significant mental health issues, rehabilitation or hospitalization may be the first step in the plan. In most cases although not in all cases, the patient will meet on a regular basis with the psychiatrist or a counselor one to several times per month, especially in issues of affective, behavioral or cognitive treatments. These sessions are typically one on one initially but they may be switched to group sessions with progressive improvement in the individual.
Medications prescribed in conjunction with psychotherapy are common in psychiatric practices. The medications tend to be antidepressant medications or those medications that stabilize mood, limit or control anxiety and prevent misperceptions and hallucinations. When the patient is on these types of medications frequent meetings with the doctor are necessary to ensure the chosen drug is working effectively and the dosage is correct. Combinations of medications also have to be carefully monitored as many of the psychiatric medications can have significant side-effects when used in combination with other prescription or over the counter drugs.
There are many different specializations with the field of psychiatry. These include the treatment of various types of addictions as well as the treatment of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Neuropsychology specializes in treating mental health conditions that are a result of neurological diseases, conditions and damage. A psychiatrist may specialize in Forensic psychiatry which is important in family and criminal law and these professionals often work for court appointed services that provide treatment, evaluation and professional opinion on an individual’s mental state.