A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor who has not only earned a medical degree (MD), but who has further specialized in the field of psychiatry, which emphasizes the care and treatment of people with mental illness. This specialization takes three to four years of study after obtaining a medical license, and involves treating people with mental illness in a variety of settings. In the US, most people who specialize in this field then take examinations given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to receive board certification. For the patient evaluating psychiatrists, board certification is a good thing to look for because it indicates that the doctor in question has demonstrated sufficient knowledge in his or her profession.
Sometimes people confuse psychiatrists with other therapists. Only medical doctors can use this job title and only they — not counselors, social workers, or psychologists — can prescribe medications or other medical therapies for the treatment of mental disorders. Many of these specialists work in conjunction with therapists, and they may provide therapy or counseling only as it relates to medication issues while a main therapist provides the majority of actual counseling. This is not always the case, however.
Other professionals not only prescribe medication but also offer therapy, since they are trained to do so, much as any other therapist would be. In the US, it can sometimes be worthwhile to find a psychiatrist who also maintains a therapy practice, as most health insurance companies treat visits to this type of medical professional as normal doctor's visits. Visits to a therapist may be limited in certain places, and in many states, health insurance only allows people a maximum of 20 visits to a therapist a year, which may not be sufficient to address a chronic mental illness.
A psychiatrist can work in many settings, including hospitals, mental health facilities or prisons. Others maintain a private practice, and still others consult with mental health facilities and maintain private practices. They can also work in research facilities, for pharmaceutical companies, or they may be part of investigative organizations like the police force.
Some specialize in criminal psychiatry and examine people accused of a crime to testify as to their fitness to stand trial or their mental health status during the commission of a crime. In criminal trials, a mental health expert may testify for the defense, suggesting that a person cannot be held legally responsible for a crime because of mental illness. As part of criminal investigation, psychiatrists may also create profiles to help police narrow their field of suspects.
One of the principal jobs of this doctor in therapeutic settings is the diagnosis of mental illness and determining course of treatment. In other words, he or she typically diagnoses mental illness and prescribes drugs and/or other medical therapies thought most effective. Since certain medications may have unwanted side effects, and it can take a while to find the right treatment for each individual patient, the doctor will continue to evaluate the patient until he or she is considered stabilized through medical therapies.
If a patient does have both a psychiatrist and a talk therapist, one of the most important things to look for is the willingness of both parties to communicate with each other. The patient should sign whatever medical releases are necessary so these two clinicians can work with each other. Since many treatments for mental illness are primarily addressed by both talk or cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, clinicians with opposing opinions on treatment may create problems for the patient. It's often beneficial to ask a therapist for recommendations for other healthcare professionals with whom he or she works frequently. Some practices employ mental health professionals of different types, which can make communication between these practitioners easier to achieve.
When a psychiatrist actually uses talk therapy, it's important to remember that there are many different philosophical approaches to the treatment of mental illness. Therapists can be Jungians, Freudians, behaviorists, humanists, Gestalt therapists or fall into a category that is more loosely defined. A patient may want to ask his clinician what his or her approach to therapy is prior to beginning treatment to see if this is compatible with his own philosophies on achieving good mental health.