In recent days, the world has approached the topic of mental health and in particular depression, with a new light. The loss of comedian Robin Williams has shown the world that it can affect anyone, and that a person’s outwardly appearance may in fact be at odds with their inner feelings and health. To provide a greater understanding of mental health and the differences between psychology and psychiatry, this article will serve to illustrate the different facets of mental health and to bring about a greater acceptance of the overall subject.

Mental Health Problem

‘No health without mental health’, the proposition made by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates the increasing public health significance of mental health. It is shown that common mental health problems can cause long-term disabilities, accounting for 31.7 % of Disability-adjusted life years (DALYS) worldwide (1). Hong Kong is of no exception. In Hong Kong, it is estimated that 1 to 1.7 million people have a mental disorder and between 70,000 – 200,000 people suffer from severe mental illnesses (2).
To minimize the mortality and disability, the best remedies are early detection, treatment and rehabilitation. But before finding out the most appropriate healthcare professional for your mental health problems, do you know whom to seek help from: a psychologist or psychiatric? These two professionals are so closely related that people always mix them up, but in fact they are not the same. Let’s check out their differences!

What is Psychology?

Psychology is defined as the study of how people think, react, and interact. It is a field which seeks to understand how people learn, develop with age, and also to explore the underlying reasons which explain their behavior. Psychologists are not medical professionals however, and only a small percentage of professionals will work directly with patients. Common situations to seek help from psychologists include: insomnia and feeling too stressful.

Psychology may also be applied to broad groups of people. For example, a psychologist may aid organizations in learning why groups of people with similar attributes learn in certain ways, or behave in certain ways. Areas of such research are applicable to groups of similar students and their learning habits, or even the behavior of a certain company’s workforce. Psychologists are responsible for analyzing these situations to determine if any improvements can be made to aid the people in their day to day life. These researchers are also able to analyze in detail the reasons for why these subject groups behave or react in certain ways – often delving into their childhood, environmental attributes, and overall social connections – and using these facts to empower the subjects or the interested organization.

What is Psychiatry?

Psychiatry is the established medical study of mental disorders, their diagnosis, management, and prevention. All psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who bring a broad area of experience in aiding those challenged by mental illness. Mental illness describes a broad category of afflictions which deal primarily with neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain – the chemicals produced by nerves which are responsible for how we think, feel, and operate at a physical level. Producing either excess or insufficient amounts of any could lead to states such as depression, psychosis, or even motor difficulties such as Parkinson’s disease in the elderly.

A psychiatric evaluation consists of looking at a patient’s mental health history, with possible additional neuro-imaging or other physical analysis techniques. Typical manuals used by psychiatrists in North America would include the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Mental health problems include: anxiety, autism, ADHD, mood disorders and alcohol abuse etc.

A prompt and accurate diagnosis of mental health issues are critical in deftly providing appropriate care and to prevent further mental health damage. Treatment is often provided via medications, which seek to restore neurotransmitter levels to healthy levels, or to block excess binding from excess chemical levels. The science of treating these imbalances may cross several health disciplines and indeed relies often on many approaches.

Psychiatric imbalances are often treated on a long-term duration (some disorders, like Anxiety Disorders and Mild Depression, may be remitted after 6 - 9 months of treatment while others, like Schizophrenia or Recurrent Mood Disorders, require longer term treatment), with many illnesses requiring life-long treatment to maintain control. Apart from the pharmacological treatment, psychological and social interventions by multidisciplinary approach are also essential to maintain a better mental health in long run.

Although many incorrectly perceive psychiatric patients to be non-contributing members of society, the reality is that most illnesses can be adequately controlled, and patients are largely able to lead normal lives.

In case of doubt, please do not hesitate to seek help from psychologists or psychiatrics. Don’t let stigma be the barrier for your recovery. The best remedies are always early detection, treatment and rehabilitation. Check available psychologists or psychiatrics on TopDoc.

Special thanks to Dr Wai-Him Cheung for his contribution to this article.
Anthony Chiam and the TopDoc Team.

1. Prince M, Patel V, Saxena S, Maj M, Maselko J, Philips MR, Rahman A.
Global Mental Health : No health without mental health. Lancet 2007; 370: 859-877.
2. HA Mental Health Service Plan for Adults 2010-2015

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