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What is Psychiatry?


What is Psychiatry?

Psychiatry is a field of medicine which deals with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. It integrates biological social and psychological aspects of mental health to provide holistic medical care for a wide range of symptoms.

There are many fields in psychiatry including general adult, child and adolescent, eating disorders, old age, substance dependence, forensic, CL (or hospital) psychiatry and neuropsychiatry. In each of these areas research into the causes of mental illness and the effects of treatment are ongoing.

It is increasingly apparent in today's world, that disorders of mental health are becoming more significant and represent significant personal and social costs to the community. While attitudes in the community are changing, disorders of mental healthy still attract social stigma and this contributes to individuals ongoing difficulties. In the future, the field of mental health is likely to be a large and exciting growth area.

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. Unfortunately, many people with mental illnesses and emotional problems fail to seek the professional help that they need.

Scientific, medical and social research is enabling a better understanding of the nature and cause of psychiatric illnesses and symptoms, and improved ways of diagnosing and treating them are constantly being developed. Psychiatrists are at the forefront of this exciting phase of research and development and are thus able to offer the best available diagnostic and treatment approaches.

What does a Psychiatrist do?

Psychiatrists act as medical consultants in a variety of ways and in a variety of settings. Most psychiatrists work in public hospitals or in private rooms, seeing patients for the diagnosis of mental and emotional disorders and providing treatments for these conditions.

Psychiatrist can prescribe medications, provide specialized counselling called psychotherapy and organise support services and assistance for their patients. Some patients require short term interventions and some much longer term support. Dealing with patients can be rewarding and challenging.

Public psychiatrists generally head multidisciplinary teams and provide leadership and organizational roles as well as clinical services.

Some psychiatrists are primarily involved in research and investigate many aspects of mental health.

What is the difference between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

Psychiatrists complete medical degrees first before further specializing in psychiatry and therefore have a biological basis which allows them to integrate biological as well as psychological and social aspects of mental health. They are able to prescribe medications as well as understand the potential interactions between medical diseases and psychological effects.

Psychologists do further postgraduate study in psychological therapies after first completing an Arts or Science degree with psychology subjects. Psychologists are involved in providing specialized counselling called psychotherapy, doing cognitive assessments and in research. They do not prescribe medication. Generally psychiatrists and psychologists work closely together to provide a full range of psychological services.

So you want to be a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatry is a great way of combining intellectual pursuits with providing a service to the community. It can provide a varied and challenging career, personal self development, the opportunity to meet a wide range of people and the privilege to be a part of their lives.

In order to become a psychiatrist, you need to first complete a medical degree either as an undergraduate or postgraduate student. This is followed by a year's internship in a general hospital and usually 1 to 2 years working in general jobs as a junior resident. At this point, doctors apply for further specialization whether they wish to be a GP or a brain surgeon. Psychiatric training, like all medical specialties is on the job training. This means that you work as a junior trainee psychiatrist with supervision form a senior psychiatrist. Training is a minimum of 5 years and involves working in different psychiatric placements, completing specific learning tasks, generally attending some sort of formal teaching which may contribute to a Masters degree and meeting a variety of educational goals. During training each trainee sits written and clinical examinations to test their competency in a wide range of areas.

It all sounds like a lot of work, but it is undertaken at a reasonable pace and much of the learning is incorporated into the day to day on the job work. Each psychiatric trainee receives specific time with senior clinicians in supervision and gets a paid afternoon off to complete academic tasks.

It all leads to the opportunity to have a challenging and meaningful career in mental health.

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 that have developed include child and adolescent psychiatry, psychiatry of old age, forensic psychiatry (concerned with legal, compensation and criminal cases), psychoanalysis and 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.


Dr Sophie Adams
Department of Psychiatry
The University of Melbourne
Level 1 North, Main Building
Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC 3050

T: +61 3 8344 6337
F: +61 3 9349 2792
E: sjadams@

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