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Can You Sue a Psychiatrist for Medical Malpractice?

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Unfortunately for the health care system in the United States, the recognition of the importance of mental health is continuing to develop very slowly. There is still a lot of stigma around mental health care in many communities in the U.S., which can prevent some people from seeking out the necessary care for their mental well-being. 

One of the most important roles in mental healthcare is that of the psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who is trained to diagnose, treat, and manage emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists are in the unique position of having the education and training of a medical doctor, as well as the focused mental health training that can provide holistic care for the mental and physical well-being of a patient. 

Like other medical doctors, psychiatrists can make serious errors. When a psychiatrist makes a mistake in caring for a patient, it can have serious physical and mental consequences. If a psychiatrist deviates from the standards of care, causing injury to a patient, the psychiatrist may be liable for medical malpractice. If you or a loved one was injured because of a psychiatrist’s negligence, contact our office today online or by phone at 800-529-6162.  

Scope of Practice of a Psychologist

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “Psychiatry is the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.”

Patients may seek out psychiatric care for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common medical and mental disorders that come under a psychiatrist’s care include: 

Psychiatrists are medical doctors. This means that a psychiatrist can provide similar care and treatment as your family doctor, even though they primarily focus on mental health. A psychiatrist can make a diagnosis for both physical and mental conditions. A psychiatrist can also prescribe medication and monitor a patient’s reaction to medication, making adjustments to manage mental health disorders. 

Difference Between a Psychologist and Psychiatrist

Many people are confused about the differences between psychologists and psychiatrists. Both psychologists and psychiatrists are medical professionals that focus on mental health. However, there is a very big difference between the two. A psychologist is not a medical doctor. Most psychologists have an advanced education degree, including a PhD or a PsyD. Psychologists may refer to themselves as “doctors” but they are not medical doctors. 

Why is the distinction between a psychologist and a psychiatrist so important? As a mental health patient, it is important to know the limits of your provider’s practice. In most situations, a psychologist cannot prescribe medications. Your psychologist is also limited in their education and training, primarily to mental health. A psychologist does not have the medical training of a psychiatrist and cannot make a health diagnosis involving physical diseases or conditions. 

This is not to take away from the important care that a psychologist can provide. A psychologist can provide psychotherapy and help many patients understand, explore, and manage their mental health conditions. Psychologists are generally more accessible for regular care for most patients and may be a part of their weekly or regular therapy sessions

Alternatively, a psychiatrist can diagnose and treat patients using treatments like psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, medication, and hospitalization. Psychiatrists can also act as the primary care physician for a patient’s mental health. 

Education and Training Requirements for a Psychiatrist

Like other medical doctors, there is extensive education and training required to become a licensed psychiatrist. Education for a psychiatrist generally begins with completing an undergraduate degree. Graduates then have to complete medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree. 

After graduating from medical school, prospective psychiatrists generally have to complete a 4-year residency program. Residency is post-graduate training, where residents work in a hospital or clinic and get on-the-job training from experienced practitioners in lab work, medical procedures, and patient care. Some psychiatrists continue on to fellowships, where they gain additional training and education in specialties or subspecialties of psychiatry. 

According to the American Board of Medical Specialties, there are a number of areas of specializations and subspecialties where a psychiatrist can get board certified, including:

  • Addiction Psychiatry
  • Brain Injury Medicine
  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • Clinical Neurophysiology
  • Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry
  • Epilepsy
  • Forensic Psychiatry
  • Geriatric Psychiatry
  • Neurocritical Care
  • Neurodevelopmental Disabilities
  • Neuromuscular Medicine
  • Pain Medicine
  • Sleep Medicine
  • Vascular Neurology

Psychiatrists become board certified through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. To gain board certification, doctors must meet certain professional and educational requirements and must pass a lengthy qualifying examination. For board certification in psychiatry, psychiatrists will have to pass the Psychiatry Certification examination. 

The specific licensing requirements vary by state. Each state has its own medical board for licensing doctors, including requirements for continued reporting, mandatory disclosures, and continuing education requirements. If you have specific questions about the licensing requirements for a psychiatrist in your state, check with your state medical board. 

Does Your Psychiatrist Have a History of Malpractice Complaints?

State medical boards are responsible for reviewing and investigating complaints about licensed physicians. Medical malpractice insurers also generally have to report any settlements or trial outcomes for medical malpractice claims involving licensed doctors and psychiatrists. 

According to the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), state medical boards, “have the responsibility of determining when a physician’s professional conduct or ability to practice medicine warrants modification, suspension, or revocation of a license to practice medicine.”

Complaints can come from patients, other doctors, health care organizations, government agencies, or other state medical boards. After learning about possible medical incompetence, unprofessional conduct, physical incapacity, or loss of hospital privileges, the medical board can conduct an investigation and determine whether or not to discipline the doctor. A medical board can take the following action: 

  • Reprimand
  • Fines
  • Supervision
  • Probation
  • Suspend the doctor’s license
  • Revoke the doctor’s license

The state medical boards maintain records related to discipline, complaints, malpractice claims, board actions, and other licensing issues for doctors. Unfortunately, not all of these disciplinary records are easily available to the consumer. Depending on your state, you may be able to search individual doctors, psychiatrists, and licensed healthcare providers

A search may indicate board actions and medical malpractice claims. However, unless you conduct further investigation, the limited information provided in these disclosures may not give you a full picture of your doctor’s disciplinary history. For example, a medical board may include notification of a malpractice claim but not provide further information because the claim was filed in another state, did not end in a judgment, or was filed before a certain date. 

Even reviewing board actions for your psychiatrist or doctor can be confusing. Many doctors have a long history of violations. Patients may wonder how a doctor with so many complaints of unprofessional conduct can continue practicing medicine, especially with patients in vulnerable communities. 

A problem doctor may have years of repeated violations, only to have the board continue with minor reprimands, limited supervision, or warnings. This leaves thousands of other patients at risk of exposure to injury, harm, or abuse by medical malpractice that is not stopped even when the medical board is aware of these patterns of abuse

Types of Psychiatric Treatment

According to ABPN, for psychiatry certification, “Psychiatry is a specialty that involves the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders, emotional disorders, psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance-related disorders, sexual and gender identity disorders and adjustment disorders.”

For treatment, “biologic, psychological, and social components of illnesses are explored and understood in treatment of the whole person. Tools used may include diagnostic laboratory tests, prescribed medications, evaluation and treatment of psychological and interpersonal problems with individuals and families, and intervention for coping with stress, crises, and other problems.”

Treatment for psychiatric conditions often involves multidisciplinary approaches to help control, understand, and manage mental health disorders. There may be many healthcare providers involved in patient care. In addition to licensed psychiatrists, the care team may include counselors, psychiatrists, nurses, therapists, mental health aides, and peer support. Treatment options may include: 

  • Psychiatric hospitalization
  • Inpatient/outpatient mental health
  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • 12-step programs

Psychiatric Hospitalization

Hospitalization is generally the most intensive type of treatment available for psychiatric patients. Psychiatric hospitalization allows for close monitoring, a stable environment, and emergency around-the-clock treatment. This can protect the patient and people close to the patient who may also be at risk of injury or serious harm. Hospitalization can be voluntary or involuntary. Involuntary hospitalization generally involves a patient who is deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. 

Inpatient/Outpatient Mental Health

Inpatient mental health treatment is generally for less severe cases than hospitalization. Residential facilities allow for around-the-clock care and supervision. This can be helpful for patients who have long-term symptoms or regular relapses and can benefit from monitoring and supervision. 

Outpatient mental health treatment can be for occasional care that still provides more expansive mental health care offerings, including individual therapy, group therapy, complementary therapies, support groups, and medical management. 


Psychotherapy is a common treatment method used by psychiatrists and psychologists for treating mental health problems. Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy generally involves learning about the patient’s condition, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. Therapy can help patients recognize negative behaviors, address destructive thoughts and emotions, and manage their mental health conditions.


Medications are commonly used in the treatment and management of psychiatric disorders. However, the use of medication is often approached as trial and error, with medications affecting different people in different ways. Using medication may involve trying out a variety of medications, dosages, and medication combinations, in tandem with psychotherapy and other modalities. 

Medications for mental health conditions will vary depending on the type of disorder. Some of the common types of prescription medications used in psychiatry include: 

  • Antidepressants: treatment of depression, anxiety, and other conditions
  • Anti-anxiety medication: treatment of anxiety and panic disorders
  • Mood-stabilizers: treatment of bipolar disorders
  • Antipsychotics: treatment of schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and other conditions 

Many mental health patients try to “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol to cover up their problems but it can make matters worse. It is important for patients to maintain contact and communication with their psychiatrist during the time they are trying out new medication, to find out what combinations of medication and therapy work best for them. Under the direction of an experienced psychiatrist, some patients may respond better to just therapy, just medication ,or a combination of therapy and the medication.

How Do I Know If My Psychiatrist Committed Medical Malpractice?

It can be difficult for any patient to know if their doctor committed medical malpractice. Many of the errors that result in patient injury go on behind closed doors, without the patient knowing that the doctor made a mistake. Often, the only notice the patient has that something went wrong is after they suffer a serious injury, illness, or mental distress. Unanticipated injuries and emotional harm may be a sign that something went wrong. 

A doctor commits medical malpractice if they breach the duty of care owed to the patient, which causes an injury and results in damages. A doctor deviates from the standard of care if they do something a reasonable psychiatrist would NOT have done under similar circumstances. When that deviation causes an injury, the psychiatrist may be liable for damages. 

It is important for mental health patients to understand the possible extent of their injuries and harm. Mental health injuries may not be as obvious as physical injuries but they can be just as harmful. For example, in a surgical malpractice case, the patient may be left with scarring, infections, loss of function, and deformity. 

In a psychiatric malpractice case, the injury victim may be left with mental distress, severe depression, anxiety, distrust of doctors, injuries from self-harm, physical harm from drug abuse, adverse reactions to psychiatric drugs, as well as physical injuries. Damages in a medical malpractice case go beyond just physical injuries. The negligent psychiatrist could be liable for loss of income if the patient cannot return to work, as well as loss of support or loss of consortium

If you believe you suffered harm or injury because of the careless actions of your psychiatrist, contact a law firm that handles psychiatric medical malpractice cases. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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