What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Unlike therapists, psychiatrists have a medical degree—they’re uniquely qualified to prescribe medication and provide other medical treatment for mental health.

What is it?

Going to a psychiatry visit involves working with a doctor called a psychiatrist. The purpose of the visit may include things like getting a diagnosis of your mental health condition or getting medical treatment to improve your mental health.

Just like any other type of doctor, a psychiatrist has a medical degree. But, instead of specializing in general medicine or surgery, they specialize in mental health and the brain. Their education and training gives them insight into complex mental health issues and the relationship between mental and physical conditions, which allows them to take your whole health into account during treatment.

Seeing a psychiatrist is most helpful when your main goal is to reduce the symptoms of your mental health issues with a medication-based approach. What’s included in your treatment plan looks different for everyone and is up for discussion: There are many medications that might be beneficial, and different medications are used for different symptoms and diagnoses. It’s important to note that not everyone who sees a psychiatrist will leave with a prescription.

Combining medication and talk therapy is also common, and psychiatrists will discuss your life stressors that may be contributing to your mental health symptoms. You may additionally undergo specialized treatments that create changes in brain chemistry and help improve symptoms.

With nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiencing mental illness each year and 1 in 20 U.S. adults experiencing serious mental illness1, psychiatry is an important treatment option to consider. That said, concerns about psychiatric treatment are common—and even more prevalent among some families, religious groups, cultures, and communities of color, who are more likely to be exposed to stigma around mental health issues, or experience bias and discrimination. These concerns are valid and there are steps you can take to find competent and culturally sensitive care.

How is it different from other types of mental health treatment options?

While psychiatrists may use discussion-based approaches as part of treatment, their medical training allows them to offer a wider variety of treatment options. This includes medication and other treatments that require an understanding of the biological, psychological, and social causes of mental health conditions. This includes what’s also called somatic therapies such as IV ketamine therapy.

Psychiatry can be especially useful if other approaches haven’t provided relief, or if symptoms are interfering with everyday life.

What are the reasons to see a psychiatrist for treatment?

Your therapist or primary care doctor might recommend seeing a psychiatrist if therapy alone does not seem to be enough, or you need treatment beyond what they can provide. You may also decide to look into it yourself if your symptoms seem to be getting more serious.

Seeing a psychiatrist can be especially helpful if you’re looking to:

  • Deal with more complex mental health conditions that are associated with chemical imbalances in the brain (like severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia)
  • Treat symptoms that haven’t responded to other forms of treatment
  • Address more sudden or worsening problems (like panic attacks, hallucinations, thoughts of self-harm or hearing voices)
  • Cope with complicated emotions that don’t seem to go away
  • Find relief from symptoms that are severely interfering with your day-to-day life
  • Receive a medical diagnosis and learn more about it and how you can manage your condition
  • Deal with a recurring mental health issue or something related to a family history of mental illness 

Reducing symptoms through medication and other psychiatric treatments may improve many areas of your life—emotions and moods, how you respond to challenges, the way you think and behave, and relationships. Additionally, your psychiatrist might suggest the idea of talk therapy.

Studies show benefits are highest when medication and talk therapy are done together. Some psychiatrists offer talk therapy themselves, but others will suggest working with a therapist in parallel (which means you’d be seeing two people as part of a coordinated treatment plan). If that’s something that interests you, ask your psychiatrist about it. 

How do I find a psychiatrist?

Taking steps to focus your search can help you find promising matches. Learn more about finding the best mental health provider for you. 

A variety of online directories exist to help folks find a therapist that meets their needs—in terms of budget, cultural sensitivity and style. 

NAMI offers valuable information about mental health care for the various communities, including questions you can ask during your search.

NAMI also offers tips for finding culturally competent providers.

What should I expect?

It’s normal to feel nervous about getting mental health treatment and working with a psychiatrist, but knowing what to expect can help put you at ease. Know that your doctor is there to support you–they want to understand what you’re struggling with so that they can help you improve and feel your best.

Your first session with a psychiatrist is similar to that with a therapistIt will focus on getting to know you and your history, and it involves a lot of questions. This is so your psychiatrist can determine a diagnosis and treatment plan, which might take a couple of sessions to figure out. 

Because your psychiatrist is trying to come up with possible diagnoses, they might ask more specific questions about your medical symptoms than a therapist. They will likely ask questions about your:

  • Symptoms (everything from depression to anxiety to psychosis)
  • Family medical history
  • History of trauma
  • Medical history
  • Substance use history
  • Psychiatric history (have you been hospitalized, who is your therapist, what medications have you been on)
  • Your social history (who is your support system, what do you do for work/school)

In asking all of this, they’re trying to narrow down what could be going on with you. They may also ask questions to figure out if additional diagnostic steps (like lab tests or referrals to other medical specialists) might be needed.

Prior to your first appointment, it can help to think about what you want to say ahead of time as we often forget things when we are nervous. Consider:

  • Writing down all the issues and symptoms that have worried you recently, or things other people have mentioned. Trends can be particularly helpful.
  • Bringing a list (or the bottles) of all of your current and past medications, including any natural products or supplements.
  • If you are switching doctors or someone else has managed your medication previously, bringing any notes would be helpful to bring with you or any assessments that you’ve completed related to mental health conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

If you feel emotional during the first session or other times during treatment, try not to feel self-conscious or hold back. It’s important for your doctor to be aware of what you’re feeling and for you to discuss it out loud. 

After that first appointment you’ll have shorter, periodic check-in sessions (on average every two weeks to one month initially). As you improve sessions, can occur more like every three to six months for 30 minutes per session to discuss how your medication is working. 

It’s likely your doctor will need to adjust the dose or type of medication over time. Prior to each of these visits, it can be helpful to make note of improvements and side effects to discuss with your doctor, as well as any questions you or your loved ones might have. 

When you start to see results will vary depending on the medication and your symptoms, so it’s important to check in with your doctor and communicate. The process requires patience, but eventually you should see your symptoms lessen, as treatment does work. If you do get frustrated or notice side effects, do not just stop your medication—always rely on your doctor to recommend any changes, even if you start to feel better. Most medications need to be tapered off to prevent other side effects or relapses.

How effective is psychiatry?

When psychiatry works

Each person’s unique biology has a big impact on their mental health. Just like someone might need to take medicine for blood pressure, someone might need medicine to improve a mental health condition and overall well-being. Psychiatric medications can change chemical signaling in the brain, which can reduce symptoms for certain conditions. 

It’s normal to have questions about taking medication. That being said, research shows there are many medications that have been proven effective for a range of mental health conditions and symptoms. With medication, people better manage their illnesses and have better functioning in their day-to-day lives.

That said, medication shouldn’t be seen as a cure-all. It takes time to find the right medication, and you might notice side effects along the way. Here are some tips if you’re considering medication as part of your treatment: 

  • Talk to your psychiatrist about the risks and benefits of any medication before you go on it.
  • While you’re taking it, observe your symptoms and let your psychiatrist know what you’re experiencing.
  • Most importantly, try to be patient. As frustrating as it can be at times, medication can help–it may just take time for it to work.

When treatment doesn't work

If you’ve patiently waited for one or more treatments to work but haven’t seen the results, it could be a sign that your psychiatrist may not be a good fit for you in terms of finding the right treatment plan. Here are some things to look out for:

  • if your doctor fails to ask about existing medications or medical conditions
  • if your doctor spends very little time with you before prescribing medication
  • if your doctor doesn’t check in with you about the medication you’re taking
  • if your doctor only focuses on side effects as opposed to how you’re doing
  • if your doctor does not go over the risks and alternatives with you of your medication

In these cases, you may want to consider other options so you can get the caring and safe treatment you deserve. Finding the right psychiatrist can be difficult, but it’s important for you to be able to advocate for yourself.

That being said, it’s important to understand that the trial and error part of finding the right medication for you is a step in the process, and not a failure on the behalf of your doctor. Many medications take weeks–if not months–to work, and switching medications can be a frustrating process. 

Try to be open-minded, ask questions, and pay attention to your side effects and improvement. If it helps, track some symptoms by writing them down or using an app on your phone. Being open-minded and allowing time for success offers you the chance for meaningful relief and improved quality of life.

  • Online interactive tool(s)
    Where to get help | Mental Health America
    Mental Health America offers a "Where to Get Help" interactive tool to recommend locating mental health support resources based on your needs.
    Trauma, Therapy
  • How-to article
    How to Find a Culturally Competent Therapist | The Jed Foundation
    This resource from the Jed Foundation breaks down step-by-step how to find a therapist who shares your background, has experience supporting people from your community, or is trained to be open to, respect, and take into account your identity and lived experience.
    Family conflict, Trauma, Therapy, For LGBTQ+ folks, Depression, For Hispanic folks, For Native & indigenous folks, For AAPI folks, For Black folks, Anxiety, Suicide
  • Online directory
    Directory of Black Psychiatrists | Black Mental Health Alliance
    Input your ZIP code to find Black psychiatrists closest to you.
    Anger, Family conflict, Grief & loss, Guilt, Non-substance addiction, Trauma, For Black folks, Therapy

Learn more about finding support


  1. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Mental Health Statistics