FAQs for the Public

What is a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a physician (M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.  It takes many years of education and training to become a psychiatrist.  S/he must graduate from college, four years of medical school and then an additional four years of specialty residency training in the field of psychiatry.  Many psychiatrists undergo additional training so they can further specialize in areas such as child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, alcohol and drug abuse, psychopharmacology, psychosomatic medicine and/or psychoanalysis.

This extensive medical training enables the psychiatrist to understand the body's functions and the complex relationship between the brain, emotions and other medical illnesses. The psychiatrist is thus the most qualified mental health professional and physician who can distinguish between physical and psychological causes of both mental and physical distress.  Psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medications and admit to hospitals.

What kinds of services do psychiatrists provide?

As physicians, psychiatrists are qualified to diagnose and treat many emotional problems. There are many modalities of treatment, including:

  • Individual, couples and/or family psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • Group therapy
  • Day treatment
  • Partial hospitalization programs
  • Intensive outpatient programs
  • Inpatient hospitalization
  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation
  • Residential treatment care

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is an illness that affects and/or is manifested in an individual’s brain.  It may impact the way a person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people.

The term "mental illness" encompasses numerous psychiatric disorders.  Just like medical illnesses that affect other parts of the body, a mental illness can vary in severity.  Many people suffering from mental illness may not look as though they are ill or that something is wrong, while others may appear to be confused, agitated or withdrawn.

It is a myth that mental illness is a weakness or character defect and that sufferers can get better simply by "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps."  Mental illnesses are real illnesses, as real as heart disease and cancer, and they require and respond well to treatment.

The term "mental illness" is an unfortunate one because it implies a distinction between "mental" disorders and "physical" disorders.  Research shows that there is as much "physical" in "mental" disorders and vice-versa.  For example, the brain chemistry of a person with Major Depression is different from that of a non-depressed person and medication can be used (often in combination with psychotherapy) to bring the brain chemistry back to normal.  Similarly, a person who is suffering from hardening of the arteries in the brain, which reduces the flow of blood and thus oxygen in the brain, may experience such "mental" symptoms as confusion and forgetfulness.

What are Some Warning Signs of Mental Illness?

  • Marked personality change
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Strange ideas or delusions
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged feelings of sadness
  • Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Thinking or talking about suicide
  • Extreme highs and lows
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Excessive anger and/or hostility
  • Violent behavior
  • Irrational fears

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should seek a psychiatric evaluation.  If you need help right away, you should seek immediate treatment from a hospital emergency room.