When should I see a psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness affects millions of Americans, but only about half of those affected get treatment. If you are experiencing mental health issues, when should you get help? And what type of help is right for you?

Psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist: What’s the difference?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors and have medical training specializing in mental illness. Psychiatrists can write prescriptions and may offer psychotherapy, or talk therapy, to their patients.

Psychologists usually have a doctoral degree, or a Ph.D., in Clinical or Counseling Psychology. They can also treat patients using psychotherapy and are trained in making psychiatric diagnoses.

Psychologists can work in clinical, research or educational fields. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists do not prescribe medication. However, psychologists work closely with psychiatrists if medication is needed when treating a patient.

"Therapist" is a broader term used for those who are trained and licensed in a variety of fields to help people.

Therapists can be:

  • Social workers
  • Life coaches
  • Marriage counselors
  • Psychoanalysts
  • School counselors

Though there are many professionals who claim to be therapists, it’s a good idea to find someone who is accredited and licensed to work in their field. If you are looking for a mental health professional, talk to your doctor about what type of therapy is right for you.

When should I seek help for mental health issues?

There are many different mental health issues, and they can affect people differently. If you are concerned about changes in your mental health or are experiencing any of the following symptoms, get help right away.

Warning signs of mental illness include:

  • Mood changes: Drastic changes in your moods or emotions in a short period of time
  • Problems thinking: Problems with concentration, memory, speech or logical thought
  • Apathy: Losing interest in activities or people
  • Sleep or appetite changes: Either a substantial decrease or increase in sleep or appetite
  • Feeling disconnected: Having a sense of unreality or not being able to connect with others
  • Drop in functioning: Quitting school, jobs or activities or not being able to perform familiar tasks
  • Unusual behavior: Odd or uncharacteristic behavior

Is online therapy right for me?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many are choosing to do online therapy and many doctors now offer sessions online or over the phone.

Some of the benefits of online, or E therapy, include:

  • Convenient: You can do sessions online from home without having to worry about commuting.
  • Safe: It’s easy to social distance and remain safe during the pandemic with online therapy.
  • A great way to start therapy: Many people can be afraid of starting therapy. With the convenience of doing sessions online, it’s easier to give therapy a try without as much risk.

Some of the downfalls of online therapy include:

  • Technology issues: Wrestling with your computer or phone to do a session can be tough for some.
  • Insurance may not cover it: Make sure to check with your insurance to see if they’ll cover your sessions.
  • It’s virtual: Doing a session online can be hard and there are untold benefits from being able to connect and see your therapist face to face.

How to talk to your doctor about mental illness

If you’re concerned about your mental health, talk to your doctor. These tips can make the conversation easier, so you can get the help you need:

  • Keep a list of symptoms, your moods and other behavioral or mental changes to show your doctor.
  • Make sure your doctor has your full medical history including what prescriptions, supplements and over-the-counter medications you are taking.
  • Find a doctor you can trust and be honest about your mental health.
  • Write down notes, questions or concerns to reference during your doctor visit.
  • Consider bringing a friend or family member with you who can support and help you during the visit. They might be able to help understand what the doctor is telling you as well as remember and share any mental health changes they’ve seen in you.

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