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What is Psychiatry?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Psychiatry is an area of medicine involving the study, diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. A person's mental health is influenced by a combination of factors that are both specific to an individual as well as related to interactions with society, community, and family. There are several components to mental well being including a healthy self esteem, communication skills and the development of resilience.

Mental health problems should not be perceived as mere weaknesses that a person can simply overcome, as they can be highly problematic and disabling conditions and affect a large proportion of the population worldwide. Mental health issues need to be addressed and treated before they cause severe disruption to families, relationships and communities.

A psychiatrist is a physician who deals with the diagnosis, treatment, management and prevention of mental health and emotional problems. The psychiatrist completes four years of mandatory medical school training before specializing in the field of psychiatry.

During these years, the psychiatrist acquires a deep understanding of bodily functions and the associations between mental health and general health. The student psychiatrist also learns to distinguish between physical and psychological causes of distress.

Examples of the mental health problems psychiatrists deal with include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. They also handle drug and substance abuse, addiction and dependence.

Severe mental health disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder affect nearly 2.8% of all adults and various other conditions have detrimental effects on a person's well-being.

Some of the sub-specialities of psychiatry include:

  • Management of addiction and rehabilitation
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry concerning elderly patients
  • Emergency psychiatry
  • Military psychiatry
  • Neuropsychiatry
  • Sleep specialists

For most psychiatric disorders, there are no laboratory tests to confirm the condition. Instead, a patient undergoes a series of psychological tests, although biochemical tests are also performed to check the patient's physical health status.

Psychiatrists use several forms of treatment in managing mental health illness including psychotherapy, medications such as antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and antidepressants. Psychotherapy may include cognitive behavior therapy, family therapy or group counselling. Hospitalization may also be needed in severe cases.

Psychiatry is one of the oldest branches of medicine but the field has developed significantly since the advent of neuroscience. Standardized guidelines for diagnosis and treating mental health disorders are present in the various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental health disorders.

Reviewed by , BSc

Last Updated: Jan 14, 2014

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