Psychologist vs psychiatrist? Mental health issues are tricky, but finding the right person to help you shouldn't be
When you come down with a sore throat, toothache, or tummy trouble, you know exactly what kind of medical provider you need to see. But what if you're feeling anxious or depressed? Is it enough to vent to a friend or should you be talking to a professional? And how do you even find a therapist?
Let's face it: You're already overwhelmed and down in the dumps. The idea of figuring out the kind of mental health professional that's right for you might feel like more than you can (or want to) handle. We get it—which is why we did the work for you. Read on for your step-by-step guide for getting the help you need. (P.S. Even Your Phone Can Pick Up on Depression.)
Step 1: Tell someone—anyone.
Knowing when to seek help is also key. There are two important signs it's time to get help from a mental health professional, says Dan Reidenberg, Psy.D., executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). "The first is when you're not able to function the way you were before and nothing you're trying is helping," he says. The second is when other people notice that something isn't right. "If someone is taking the step to say something to you then it's gone further and lasted longer—and is probably more serious—than you may realize," he says.
Whether it's a significant other, friend, family member, or coworker, reaching out for help is the most important thing. Often, mental illnesses—even mild depresion or anxiety—can make it difficult for you to determine how severe it's become, Reidenberg says. "Letting someone know that you're struggling can make a big difference."
Step 2: Visit your doctor.
You don't need to launch into a search for a shrink. Your first visit can be your regular primary care physician or ob-gyn. "There may be biological, medical, or hormonal factors going on that can be detected in a lab test," he says. For instance, thyroid problems are associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety and treating the underlying problem can help you feel better. "Your doctor may suggest you talk to someone in the interim as medications start to work or in case they don't work," Reidenberg adds. If your doctor rules out a medical condition, he or she will most likely refer you to a psychologist. (Find out: Is Anxiety In Your Genes?)
Step 3: See a psychologist.
"A psychologist is the best person to go to if you're struggling with changes in your emotions or moods, you're not interested in things that you once were, nothing seems to make you happy anymore, or your mood is going up and down or is consistently down," he says. "A psychologist can help you learn how to work with your thoughts and behaviors to adjust them back to a more manageable place."
Psychologists don't prescribe medication (psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, do). "A psychologist is trained in many different approaches," Reidenberg says. "When people just sit and talk in a safe, non-judgmental environment it can be incredibly helpful for sorting through thoughts and feelings. It reduces their level of anxiety."
Step 4: Your psychologist may refer you to a psychiatrist.
In almost all cases, you won't see a psychiatrist unless your pscyhologist thinks it's necessary, if you're not getting better or have too much pain to handle on your own. The greatest benefit will probably be from working with both of them, Reidenberg adds. "Each doctor will want to know if you experience any side effects, but for different reasons." A psychiatrist will want to be looped in to know if a dosage or medication is wrong, whereas a psychologist can help you deal with the side effects by adjusting your life and perspective, Reidenberg says. "Working together, they'll share information about your progress so that you can get back on track as quickly as possible." (But be warned—Misdiagnosing Depression Could Seriously Mess with Your Brain.)