Psychiatry. If you’ve heard the term before, you might be wondering what it is and how it’s different from therapy. While both psychiatry and therapy focus on helping people improve their mental health, they are not one and the same. Here, we’ll answer some common questions about psychiatry to help you understand the differences between the two practices.
Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Because it’s a medical specialty, psychiatry can only be practiced by psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have earned the credentials M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). They can prescribe medication and perform a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests to help them evaluate, diagnose, and treat their patients.
Therapy can involve a range of different non-medical treatments, such as behavior therapy and cognitive therapy. These techniques aim to help people identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. While therapists are licensed professionals, they’re not medical doctors and therefore can’t prescribe medication.
Both psychiatrists and licensed therapists can diagnose and treat mental health conditions. The big difference to keep in mind is that psychiatrists can provide medical treatment and administer and monitor medication.
Psychiatrists often prescribe medications in combination with therapy to help make treatment more effective. The types of medications prescribed by psychiatrists depend on the diagnosis and medical history of the patient they’re treating. Some common mental health medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers.
Along with prescribing and monitoring medication, psychiatric providers often provide brief psychotherapy during psychiatric appointments. Typically, this is supportive psychotherapy or problem-solving therapy. It’s common for a psychiatric provider to recommend additional standard psychotherapy (one hour per week with a different psychotherapist) in order to more fully treat a person’s symptoms. Some psychiatric providers may offer other psychiatric treatments in addition to medication management and brief psychotherapy. Talk to your therapist or mental health professional to learn more about psychiatric treatments.
Therapy alone can do wonders to improve mental health, but sometimes people need a little more support. If a therapist or other mental health professional thinks you can benefit from medication or medical treatment, they’ll refer you to a psychiatric provider for evaluation. Then, your therapist or mental health professional and psychiatric provider will often work together on a treatment plan that’s right for your specific diagnosis and needs.
You can also see a psychiatric provider directly, without going to therapy first. Some people may only want medication management to treat their mental health condition, and that’s okay. On the other hand, many people benefit from just therapy alone, or from a combination of therapy and medication.
Wondering if seeing a therapist or psychiatrist is right for you? Consider these questions to ask your therapist to help you find the right mental health professional for you.
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American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers?
Campbell, I. (2020, September 24). Medication management for mental health. Sage Neuroscience Center. https://sageclinic.org/blog/medication-management/
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National Institute of Mental Health. (2016, October). Mental health medications. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/mental-health-medications
National Institute of Mental Health. (2021, June). Psychotherapies. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies