There are all kinds of titles and designations for mental health workers today: psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, psychotherapist, coach, etc. These titles have to do with the qualifications, training, and specializations of the various social workers. In this regard, psychiatrists differ from other mental health care providers in a number of crucial ways. What exactly does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist is a physician

A psychiatrist is the only one of the mental health professionals who is a physician. He or she has studied medicine for six years and then completed a 4.5-year course in psychiatry. Only medical school graduates are allowed to take this course. Because a psychiatrist has a medical background, he or she treats mental illness in conjunction with overall physical health. In doing so, the psychiatrist is the only person authorized to prescribe medication.

The field of work of a psychiatrist

Although a psychiatrist can and may use the same treatment techniques as a therapist, in practice the psychiatrist almost exclusively treats patients with severe mental disorders. This is because the treatment of disorders such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, or severe depression often requires medication. Because of the seriousness of these problems, the clients of a psychiatrist are often under treatment longer than the clients of other care providers.


Psychiatrists can work within different sub-fields:

  • Child and youth psychiatry
  • Adult psychiatry
  • Geriatric Psychiatry
  • Social psychiatry: this field focuses on the social and community context of the client. The treatment is often very practice-oriented.
  • Forensic psychiatry: forensic psychiatrists treat clients who have committed a criminal offense because of their condition.
  • Transcultural psychiatry: this field of study investigates the influence of different cultures on the manifestation and treatment of mental illness.
  • Neuropsychiatry: neuropsychiatrists focus on the biological (or neurological) causes of mental disorders.
  • Hospital psychiatry: hospital psychiatrists treat clients who have a mental illness in addition to a physical condition (for which they must go to the hospital).

Treatment by a psychiatrist

A psychiatrist treats a client with a combination of talk therapy and medication. Because a therapist can also provide talk therapy, the psychiatrist’s help is sometimes only called in for the medical part of the treatment. This is certainly the case when a client has already established a good relationship with a therapist and he or she prefers to continue the talk therapy with that therapist.

Where do psychiatrists work?

Some psychiatrists open practices independently, but most psychiatrists are employed by healthcare facilities where a psychiatric physician is necessary. These include the psychiatric ward of hospitals, secure clinics, psychiatric residential facilities, institutions for youth psychiatry, or drug rehabilitation centers. Where the psychiatrist works depends on the specialization he or she has chosen during training.

When do I need a psychiatrist?

If you are looking for help for mental health problems, you will usually first come to a therapist. If that therapist thinks it’s necessary, for example, because you might benefit from medication, he or she can refer you to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist will then put together a treatment plan, which may also make use of other disciplines, such as psychotherapy, movement therapy, occupational therapy, or social work.

Have you been walking around with psychological symptoms for a while? Then turn to a therapist in the first instance. The Online Therapists also has a psychiatrist, so we can always refer you if necessary. Would you like more information? In this article, we will discuss the differences between a therapist and a psychiatrist in more detail.


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