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Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that studies and treats mental and
emotional disorders (see mental illness). The term alienist is an old term
for a psychiatrist.
Note that psychiatry is practiced by psychiatrists, psychology by
psychologists. Psychiatrists have medical training, while psychologists have
extensive training in therapy and psychological testing.
Mind vs. brain
Psychiatric illnesses were for some time characterised as disorders of
function of the mind rather than the brain, although the distinction is not
always obvious. In the current state of knowledge this distinction does not
hold true, as most psychiatric conditions have their correlates in term of
For a long period of history, neurology and psychiatry were a single
discipline, and following their division the steady advance in understanding
of the basic functioning of neurons and the brain is bringing areas of the
two disciplines back together.
Psychiatry was at first a pragmatic discipline that was part of general
medicine, combining medicine and practical psychology. The work of Emil
Kraepelin laid the foundations of scientific psychiatry, but was derailed by
the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. For many years, Freudian
theories dominated psychiatric thinking.
The discovery of lithium carbonate as a treatment for bipolar disorder,
followed by the development of fields such as molecular biology and tools
such as brain imaging has led to psychiatry re-discovering its origins in
physical and observational medicine without losing sight of its humane dimension.
Unlike most other areas of medicine, there is a politicised anti-psychiatry
movement that opposes the practices of, and in some cases the existence of,
psychiatry. Some opponents of psychiatry state that selective financing by
large multinational drug companies of both high ranking professional
psychiatrists, research and educational material has lead the practice of
psychiatry to be subversively, and in some cases inhumanely misled.