Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.
People seek psychiatric help for many reasons. The problems can be sudden, such as a panic attack, frightening hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, or hearing “voices.” Or they may be more long-term, such as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or anxiousness that never seem to lift or problems functioning, causing everyday life to feel distorted or out of control.
Because they are qualified doctors, psychiatrists can order or perform a full range of medical laboratory and psychological tests which, combined with discussions with patients, help provide a picture of a patient’s physical and mental state. Their education and clinical training equip them to understand the complex relationship between emotional and other medical illnesses and the relationships with genetics and family history.
Psychiatrists use a variety of treatments – including various forms of psychotherapy, medications, psychosocial interventions and other treatments (such as electroconvulsive therapy or ECT), depending on the needs of each patient.
Most medications prescribed by a psychiatrist are used in much the same way that medications are used to treat high blood pressure or diabetes. After completing thorough evaluations, psychiatrists can prescribe medications to help treat mental disorders. Psychiatric medications can help correct imbalances in brain chemistry that are thought to be involved in some mental disorders.
Patients on long-term medication treatment typically meet with their psychiatrist periodically to monitor the effectiveness of their medication and any potential side effects.
To practice as a Psychiatrist, you need to have a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree (MBChB), followed by a Masters in Medicine, specialising in Psychiatry. Prospective students also need to be registered with the HPCSA
Some psychiatrists also complete additional specialised training after their four years of general psychiatry training. They may become certified in:
- Child and adolescent psychiatry
- Geriatric psychiatry
- Forensic (legal) psychiatry
- Addiction psychiatry
- Pain medicine
- Psychosomatic (mind and body) medicine