About Psychiatry


What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry is a medical specialty concentrated on the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and research of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that completed an additional 4 years of specialized training in a residency program after medical school.  A psychiatrist is able to diagnose and treat mental health disorders with medications and/or psychotherapy.

What causes mental illness?

Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, it is believed that many conditions are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. 

Genetic: Some mental illnesses are passed on genetically in families. Many mental disorders are linked to problems in multiple genes, which is why a person inherits susceptibility to a mental disorder, but does not always develop the condition.  The disorder itself occurs from the interaction of these genes and other factors, such as psychological trauma and/or environmental stressors, which can influence the illness in a person who has inherited a susceptibility to it.

Biology: Some mental illnesses have been linked to an abnormal balance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (chemicals that help nerve cells in the brain communicate).  Injury to certain areas of the brain and certain medical conditions have also been linked to some mental disorders.

Psychological trauma: Some mental illnesses may be triggered by psychological trauma such as severe emotional, physical, or sexual abuse and neglect.

Environmental stressors: Certain stressors can trigger a disorder in a person who may be at risk for developing a mental illness.  Some examples of stressors include divorce, death, family dysfunction, change in job or school, and substance abuse.

What are the different branches of psychiatry?

  • Addiction Psychiatry focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) and other addictions, such as gambling.  Treatment options include: outpatient treatment, methadone clinics, inpatient treatment (such as 30-day programs), psychotherapy and recovery groups.
  •   Adult Psychiatry focuses on the treatment of psychiatric illness in adults.  Commonly treated disorders include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, trauma related disorders and sleep disorders.
  • Forensic Psychiatry focuses on the interface of the law and mental health. It includes psychiatric evaluations in a wide variety of legal matters such as evaluations of competency to stand trial and treatment of individuals in correctional facilities.
  • Geriatric Psychiatry focuses on treatment of the elderly.  Commonly treated disorders include depression, anxiety, dementia, and end of life issues.
  • Psychosomatic Medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders in medically ill patients.
  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatry focuses on the psychiatric treatment of individuals less than 18 years old.  Common illnesses that affect this population include intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and mood disorders.   
  • Public Psychiatry focuses on how psychiatry relates to community issues, recovery oriented services, advocacy, and research.

What happens when I see a psychiatrist?

An initial evaluation usually takes around 50-60 minutes, but can take over an hour or even two separate sessions.  During this time, you will be asked many questions about your current symptoms, psychiatric history, medical history, use of substances and family history.   At the end of the evaluation, the psychiatrist can make an initial treatment plan with you, which may include further sessions, starting a medication, additional laboratory tests or initiating psychotherapy.  Not everyone who sees a psychiatrist will be prescribed a medication. 

What do I do if there is a psychiatric emergency? 

Any emergency, psychiatric and/or medical, requires immediate attention and evaluation.  You can call your mental health care provider, go to the nearest urgent care center or hospital, or call 911.

Some examples of psychiatric emergencies include thoughts of self-harm or suicide, thoughts of hurting others, or worsening of certain symptoms like mania or psychosis.