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Frequently Asked Questions About Psychiatry & Psychiatrists

September, 2002

What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry is the medical specialty that focuses on the human brain and the brain, mind, body intertie.

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a licensed physician who has specialty training in the brain, mind, body intertie. Psychiatric physicians (psychiatrists) are trained to diagnose and treat illnesses that cause psychosis or abnormal behavior. That illness may be a brain disorder commonly called a "mental illness," such as schizophrenia, or it may be one of hundreds of other illnesses, such as a thyroid malfunction, circulatory problem or cancer, that is causing the mental symptoms.

What training does a psychiatrist receive?

A psychiatrist has a college degree with a heavy biological science emphasis, a medical degree (M.D. or D.O), and 4 or more years of residency training emphasizing psychiatry and neurology.

What are the most common mental illnesses and how are they treated?

The most common mental illnesses are depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), schizophrenia, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, other anxiety disorders, and eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. They are usually treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

What is a psychotropic drug or medication?

The phrase "psychotropic" describes a medication that primarily affects the brain. However, this distinction is somewhat artificial, since medications go through the entire body, and are often used for several different purposes. For example, bupropion is used to stop smoking (Zyban) and for depression (Wellbutrin). All medications have intended or desirable affects, and secondary, undesirable effects, usually called "side effects."

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

Psychologists hold academic doctoral degrees (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in human behavior. Their training emphasizes psychotherapy and psychological testing. The psychologist does not have to have any medical training.

Is there a shortage of psychiatrists in California?

It is open to debate whether there is a shortage of the total number of psychiatrists, but there are clearly underserved areas, as there are with most medical specialties. There is a shortage of child psychiatrists nationally, as a result of federal policies that have reduced training slots for most medical subspecialties, including child psychiatry.

Are psychologists more widely distributed than psychiatrists?

No. The research we have done clearly demonstrates that psychiatrists and psychologists are largely in the same places. The most widely distributed health care providers are physicians and nurses.

How do we address the problems of access to psychiatrists and psychiatric care?

CPA recommends a 6-part strategy: (1) increasing the numbers of training slots in psychiatry; (2) loan forgiveness programs as an incentive to practice in underserved areas; (3) competitive compensation and working conditions for psychiatrists in public and other systems; (4) removing impediments to psychiatrists consulting and collaborating with primary care physicians; (5) increasing training slots for Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants specializing in psychiatry; and (6) increased use of telepsychiatry and other technology.

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