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What Is Psychiatry?

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

In its ongoing attempts to define, understand, and categorize mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, and determine the best treatments, the medical specialty of psychiatry is always up against the deep complexity of the human brain. Psychiatrists conduct research on a wide range of mental conditions and treatment approaches, and the field produces and periodically revises classification systems such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), widely used by clinicians use as a guide for diagnosis.

Symptoms of mental illness and distress stem from both biological and environmental factors, including maladaptive patterns of behavior and even diet. The contribution each makes to disorder varies from person to person. Although many types of mental health practitioners administer psychotherapy, practicing psychiatrists—who are trained as medical doctors—can also prescribe psychotropic medication as part of the treatment they provide. Both psychotherapy and drugs have been proven effective for many psychiatric disorders. Often a combination of the two works best.

The Treatment of Mental Disorders


Psychiatrists face fundamental questions about the nature of their patients’ struggles: What are the best and most helpful ways to classify mental disorders? What is “normal”? How can treatments designed for categories of people be tailored to individuals? Constructive debate and scientific and technological innovation are pushing psychiatry toward more satisfying answers—and to more effectively aid those who seek treatment.

Modern medical diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions relies on tools ranging from neuroimaging to transcranial stimulation. Psychotropic medications remain the most commonly sought and prescribed treatments, but increasingly the psychiatric landscape includes more than drugs and pharmacotherapy.

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