Psychiatry is the branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illnesses. The word psychiatry comes from two Greek words that mean "mind healing." Those who practice psychiatry are called psychiatrists. In addition to graduating from medical school, these physicians have postgraduate education in the diagnosis and treatment of mental behaviors that are considered abnormal.
Psychiatrists tend to view mental disorders as diseases and can prescribe medicine to treat those disorders. Other medical treatments occasionally used by psychiatrists include surgery (although rarely) and electroshock therapy.
Many, but not all, psychiatrists use psychoanalysis, a system of talking therapy based on the theories of Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Freud believed that mental illness occurs when unpleasant childhood experiences are repressed (blocked out) because they are so painful. Psychoanalysts seek to cure patients by having them recover these repressed thoughts by talking freely until themes or issues related to the troubling conflicts arise, which are then addressed. Psychoanalysis often involves frequent sessions lasting over many years. Many psychiatrists use a number of types of psychotherapy in addition to psychoanalysis and prescription medication to create a treatment plan that fits a patient's needs.
The ancient Greeks believed people who were mentally ill had an imbalance of the elements (water, earth, air, and fire) and the humors (the bodily fluids of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile). In Europe during the Middle Ages (400–1450), most people thought that mental illness was caused by demonic possession and could be cured by exorcism. In the 1700s, French physician Philippe Pinel (1745–1826) became the first to encourage humane treatment for the mentally ill.
By the late 1800s, physicians started to take a more scientific approach to the study and treatment of mental illness. German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926) had begun to make detailed written observations of how his patients' mental disturbances had come into being as well as their family histories. Freud began developing his method of using the psychoanalytic techniques of free association and dream interpretation to trace his patients' behavior to repressed, or hidden, drives. Others worked to classify types of abnormal behavior so that physicians could accurately diagnose patients.
Present-day psychiatry has become more specialized. Psychiatrists often focus on treating specific groups of people, such as children and adolescents, criminals, women, and the elderly.
Scientific researchers in the twentieth century have confirmed that many mental disorders have a biological cause. Those disorders can be treated effectively with psychiatric drugs that fall into four categories: antipsychotics (tranquilizers used to fight psychoses, or mental disorders characterized by loss of contact with reality), antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antianxiety medications.