How psychiatrists help people lead fulfilled lives

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There is a growing need for mental health professionals for a variety of reasons. For starters, more people are realizing how psychiatric care can help them lead a happy and more productive life. The other side is that societal and economic conditions have led to more depression, substance abuse and even violence.

While plenty of people have a vague idea of what a psychiatrist does, their impression is often of a concerned-looking person with a notebook talking to someone lying on a couch. Psychiatry is much more complicated and involved than this popular view. In this post, we will explore what a psychiatrist does and how they help their patients heal and cope with bumps in the road of life and more.

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is more than just a counselor. Psychiatrists hold medical degrees and are therefore licensed to treat patients using a full spectrum of resources, including counseling and medications. They may make referrals to other medical doctors or specialty counselors, as well as treatment centers. Some psychiatrists may choose to specialize in a specific area of psychiatry or age group.

Duties of a psychiatrist

No one patient is the same as another. Some of the duties listed below may never be utilized with some patients, while others may require the full range of psychiatric services offered.

Evaluating patients

Patients often seek the help of a psychiatrist when they are dealing with specific issues that they are willing to talk about. At other times, a patient may feel that something is wrong or feel totally overwhelmed but unsure of what the real issue is. A psychiatrist can help by evaluating a patient using a series of appointments and tests to help make a proper diagnosis. 

There is no way to know how many sessions will be needed to fully comprehend a patient’s needs because each case is unique. That being said, within a session or two, psychiatrists often have some idea of the scale and specific type of issues or disorders from which a patient may potentially be suffering. As the sessions unfold, a psychiatrist will uncover more information and details that could reveal other issues or even disorders. 

Psychiatrists may consult or refer to another doctor if they suspect that there may be physical issues contributing to declining mental health. For example, high blood pressure can contribute to anger issues. There are many physical problems that can affect how the human brain functions. As physical and mental health are so connected, it is important for patients to receive a proper evaluation when they feel that something is not right about their mental or physical health for an extended period of time.

Creating a treatment plan

Treatment plans for psychiatric patients may be quite simple or very complex. There is also no set-in-stone timeline for recovery and care because needs can change over time. 

Establishing realistic goals is critical

It is important to establish realistic goals for each patient. Some patients may try to set goals and milestones far too high from the beginning. 

A psychiatrist must instill in the patient the belief that small steps lead to big rewards. Setting realistic goals and achieving them increases the odds of patients healing, coping, recovering and sticking to the treatment regimen prescribed by their psychiatrist and other attending physicians.

When goals are set too high and not fulfilled, it can lead to the patient feeling that there is no hope for success. For patients with mental health issues that are due to a physical issue such as schizophrenia, it is important for them to understand that they will have to learn to live with their problem and make the best of it, but that this does not mean that they cannot have a fulfilling and happy life.

Planning future visits

Some patients may need to be seen weekly as part of their treatment and therapy, while others may have a monthly appointment and as needed if something occurs and they require more mental health support. The frequency of visits can change throughout the course of treatment depending on the precise needs of the patient. 

A psychiatrist will discuss a recommended schedule of visits as part of the initial plan and then have their staff organize these visits well in advance. 

Prescribing any necessary medications and monitoring patient progress

In some cases, a psychiatrist may prescribe medications to help treat patients with conditions. Chronic anxiety, depression and substance abuse are some of the major mental health concerns where medications may be recommended for a short to long period of time.

It can take some time to settle on the correct dosage and combination of medications that is of most benefit to the patient. This typically means a few extra visits to monitor how a patient is tolerating a medication and then making any adjustments to the dosage or even altering the type of medication. 

Many medications take some time before patients start noticing major positive effects. A medication that helps with depression, for example, may take weeks to stabilize and regulate within a patient. It is important for a psychiatrist to closely monitor progress and offer any needed support during this time period. Some medications can be harmful when a patient suddenly quits them or reduces the recommended dosage – hence the importance of checking in.


Counseling is a large part of psychiatric care. Patients need a place where they can be honest and open without fear of judgment or consequences. Psychiatrists are bound to protect the privacy of their patients, with some exceptions in cases where a major crime has been committed or harm against another person is a factor. 

For some patients, counseling is the primary need they have to heal and recover, particularly if they are dealing with emotional issues from trauma. No counseling session can erase past events, but it can help patients come to terms with what they had to go through and learn how to live with it as well as they can.

Substance abuse treatment and counseling

Substance abuse can result from underlying untreated mental or physical issues, but sometimes substance abuse starts first and leads to mental and physical issues. A psychiatrist must determine the order and complexity of these issues to help patients overcome substance abuse.

Cases where there are multiple issues at play can be very complex and require collaboration with other healthcare professionals and substance abuse centers. Psychiatrists may recommend medications to help during detox and withdrawal from substances, or in severe cases they may refer patients to in-patient substance abuse centers, where they can distance themselves from situations in which they are tempted to use and put a barrier between them and friends or family who enable them.

Light therapy

Seasonal depression is a common issue in climates where sunlight can be quite limited for periods of time. Areas such as Alaska and northern climates and countries that have long winters and very limited light have more cases of seasonal disorders than more temperate climates.

Light therapy is a treatment where patients are required to sit under a special light for a specified period of time per day to help alleviate symptoms. This treatment plan is often prescribed and patient progress is monitored to make sure that there is some relief. Light therapy may also be combined with other treatments.

Electroconvulsive therapy

Electronic shock therapy has long been used to help with some disorders and mental health conditions. It unfortunately has a bad reputation due to the crude methods used when it was first introduced. Modern methods make shock therapy much safer and more effective than it was in the past because we know immensely more about the human brain and how it functions.

This therapy is administered while a patient is under general anesthesia. It works by using electronic currents to alter brain chemistry, resulting in relief from some behaviors. Shock therapy is used to treat depression that’s resistant to other treatments. Those suffering from severe mania have been known to get some relief from shock treatment. Dementia patients suffering from aggression and agitation sometimes receive shock therapy.


The use of ketamine therapy is becoming more widely used by psychiatrists for a variety of stress and trauma-related mental disorders. This treatment can be carried out either in the office or in the comfort of the patient’s own home under the remote supervision and support of a psychiatrist.

Ketamine works by producing a state of altered consciousness, often euphoria. When used correctly and in small doses, it has been found to offer long-term benefits for those suffering from chronic depression and anxiety. It helps patients relax and work through problems by understanding them better and finding ways to take charge of their own mental health.

Mental health nurses can help bridge the gap in care in many communities

Psychiatrists require double the amount of education and training than a family nurse practitioner (FNP) specializing in mental health. There are many appointments and issues that an FNP can provide to mental health patients and their families. If you are an FNP or a registered nurse (RN) looking for opportunities to advance your career, you should consider a career in mental health nursing.

FNP vs. PMHNP salary

When considering any future career, it is important to consider the difference in salary and benefits so that you can decide if the education and training required sound like a good choice for you and your family. Marymount University offers an online Master of Science in Nursing – Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program that can be completed while you continue to work as an RN. The only aspect of the program requiring you to physically be there is your clinical placements, where you will gain an enormous amount of valuable experience.

When comparing an FNP vs. PMHNP salary, figures are fairly similar. PMHNPs are reported to earn slightly less than FNPs, but it is such a small difference that it is likely that you could expect to make around the same amount. The difference is not so great that it should influence your decision to become a PMHNP if that is really what you are interested in doing. It is also necessary to consider other benefits and the typical work schedule offered.

The difference in the duties is also something to consider. PMHNPs do not treat the diseases, illnesses and injuries that a FNP has to treat, thus making the job easier for some people than others. This is not to say that working with mental health patients does not have its challenges and safety concerns.

Mental health nurses may work in clinics, hospitals, assisted living facilities, correctional institutions and more. There are many opportunities to have a more standard work schedule than what is offered as an RN at a hospital.

PMHNPs help bring mental health services to underprivileged people

There are many communities that are severely lacking in mental health services. Mental health nurse practitioners can help these communities have better access to mental health resources. 

PMHNPs help reduce the cost of mental health and other healthcare

Better mental health is shown to improve physical health. When there are fewer mental and physical health conditions, it can help reduce healthcare costs overall. 

Mental health services and substance abuse treatment can have particularly high costs. Utilizing the skills and services of nurse practitioners is far less expensive than a psychiatrist. While the importance of psychiatric services should not be underestimated, it is necessary to realize that not all aspects of psychiatric treatment and care require the services of someone with a doctorate degree.

Psychiatry is important for providing care for mental and physical conditions. Untreated mental health disorders have a huge impact on the quality of life and productivity of millions of people nationwide. Providing mental health services to more people will require educating and training a much higher number of mental health professionals over the coming decades.

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