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About psychiatry

Video: Psychiatrists talk about their work
A diverse range of psychiatrists talk about why they chose to go into psychiatry, and why they're passionate about their work.

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a qualified medical doctor who has obtained additional qualifications to become a specialist in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and emotional problems.

Because they have both medical and psychiatric training, psychiatrists are able to view illness in an integrated way by taking into consideration the related aspects of body and mind.

Psychiatrists are trained to recognise and treat the effects of emotional disturbances on the body as a whole, as well as the effects of physical conditions on the mind.

This is important, as many emotional disturbances affect various parts of the body, and physical illnesses can certainly affect the mind. A psychiatrist’s medical and psychiatric training allows both the physical and emotional to be kept in perspective.

How do psychiatrists train?

The first step in becoming a psychiatrist is to train as a doctor, which takes 6 years of university study. Some teaching and experience in psychiatry is included in these basic medical qualifications.

The doctors then work as interns in a general hospital for a further 12 months to become registered medical practitioners, followed by at least another year as a resident medical officer.

A panel of psychiatrists in each state interviews each applicant for the Psychiatric Training Program, who must also provide extensive references regarding their work performance and suitability.

In Australia and New Zealand, RANZCP conducts specialist training for doctors to qualify as psychiatrists.

The College’s program for post-graduate training in psychiatry takes a minimum of 5 years, during which time doctors work under supervision in hospitals and community clinics with children, families, adults and the elderly on a full range of psychiatric problems.

Training in psychiatry requires mandatory supervision by experienced, qualified psychiatrists. Rigorous examinations are conducted throughout their training during which their experience and competence are tested.

Only if these strict training and examination requirements are completed can doctors be elected as Fellows of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

Where do psychiatrists work?

Psychiatrists work in a variety of settings, including general and psychiatric hospitals, universities, community mental health services and public and private clinics. 

Many psychiatrists have a predominantly private practice. Others work mainly in hospitals or in prisons, or in a variety of public health facilities.

Some psychiatrists work in more than one area, such as combining part time work in a public hospital with a private practice. Psychiatrists are also involved in a broad range of community issues and organisations, and are often called upon to assist both government and non-government agencies in the development of mental health policies and services.

Specialist areas of psychiatry

Some psychiatrists gain additional training and experience within the field of psychiatry. The specialties include:

  • child and adolescent psychiatry
  • psychiatry of old age
  • forensic psychiatry (concerned with legal, compensation and criminal cases)
  • psychoanalysis
  • psychotherapy.

Psychiatrists also act as consultants in drug and alcohol programs and to community services. Within hospitals they are commonly involved in liaison with other areas of medicine and surgery, for example as consultants to pain clinics.

Differences between psychiatry and psychology

Unlike a psychologist, a psychiatrist is a fully qualified specialist doctor, who has completed at least 13 years of medical education in medicine, surgery and psychiatry.

Psychiatrists have a unique perspective in being able to diagnose, manage and care for people with mental illnesses and emotional problems, whilst keeping both their emotional and physical states in perspective.

Psychiatric treatments

Psychiatric treatments are tested and researched in the same rigorous way as other medical treatments.

A psychiatrist’s choice of a particular treatment is based on its proven effectiveness in treating the symptom or illness.

Treatment methods can be physical, psychological, involve medication, or may be a combination of these approaches. In some cases, an admission to hospital is required.

Psychotherapy is an important method of treatment in which the psychiatrist and patient discuss problems during regularly scheduled sessions to assist the patient understand the basis of their problems and to find a solution.

A wide range of medications is now available for use in psychiatric illnesses. Medications can now effectively remove symptoms, alter the course of illnesses and commonly return patients to a normal life.

In some instances, medications can be life saving, for example, in a case of a severe depressive illness. Psychiatrists are highly experienced in prescribing and monitoring these medications.

What is mental illness?

One in five people suffer from emotional problems sufficiently distressing to justify seeking professional help.

Their symptoms can range from relatively mild feelings of depression and anxiety to severe distress and dysfunction which threatens life itself.

Scientific, medical and social research is enabling a better understanding of the nature and cause of psychiatric illnesses and symptoms, and improved diagnosis and treatment are constantly being developed.