So if you have mental health concerns, you should seek help. But where do you go? How do you know what type of doctor you should talk to? Do you look for a psychiatrist or a counselor or a psychologist?
Psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors understand how the brain works, our emotions, feelings and thoughts. They are different types of professionals trained to help you deal with mental health issues. Both are there to talk you through problems. They aim to provide you with the means to manage the issues in your everyday life.
However, because they are doctors, psychiatrists understand the links between mental and physical problems.
To go into it in some more detail, the main differences relate to:
- treatments provided
- conditions treated
Psychiatrists: are medical doctors (MDs) who graduate from medical school before doing specialist training in mental health. Because of their medical training, psychiatrists can prescribe medication- probably the most commonly known distinction between the two fields.
Psychologists: Psychologists have special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. They need to have a degree in psychology. Although they can run a private practice as well if they have a license to do so.
Counselors– Counselors at times overlap with Psychologists, as they are trained in dealing with mild concerns of people which does not involve clinical diagnosis
Psychologists or Counselors have a masters degree in an area of psychology, the study of the mind and human behavior. They’re not medical doctors. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are also trained in giving psychological tests (like IQ tests or personality tests).
Psychiatrists have a stronger sense of biology and neurochemistry. Theirs is going to be a diagnosis of exclusion. For instance, before diagnosing depression, they make sure it isn’t instead some vitamin deficiency or thyroid problem. Once they’ve made a mental health diagnosis, psychiatrists often prescribe you medicine.
That is, they can provide a wide range of treatments, according to the particular problem and what will work best. These include:
- general medical care, including checking your physical health and the effects of medication
- brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Psychologists or Counselors focus on providing psychotherapy. They look closely at your behavior. For example: If you’re depressed and can’t get out of bed, there’s a behavioral activation. Psychologists will track sleep patterns, eating patterns, and the negative thoughts that might be causing or contributing to the problem.
A counselor has a stronger focus on healthy individuals, who have fewer pathological mental problems. A clinical psychologist has a stronger focus on those with a psychosis or other serious mental illness.
Psychiatrists tend to treat people who need their medical, psychological and social needs considered.
These are usually people with complex conditions, for example:
- severe depression
- bipolar disorder.
Someone who has attempted suicide or has suicidal thoughts will usually be seen by a psychiatrist.
Psychologists or Counselors are more likely to see people with conditions that can be helped effectively with psychological treatments. This might include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, personality influences, faulty coping mechanisms, stress, depression and anxiety.
Counselors seem to be more interested in the humanistic approach, dealing directly with behavioral concerns that can be resolved in the community. They also provide therapy, however, counseling involves elements of motivation, support and rehabilitation as well. Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, prefer more serious mental illnesses, where hospitalization is generally required.
Whom Should You Call?
One possible advantage of seeing a psychiatrist is that, as a medical doctor, he or she has the knowledge and training to evaluate underlying medical problems or drug effects that could cause emotional or behavioral symptoms. Psychiatrists can also work more readily with your primary care doctor or other specialists.
For serious kinds of mental health problems, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, where physical symptoms may be severe and it may be hard to take basic care of yourself, psychiatrists generally have more formal training and treatment options available.
Your choice should be guided by the type of problem you’re having. Someone who may be clinically depressed could benefit from taking medication, while someone dealing with a phobia might find therapy with a psychologist the most effective choice.
Usually, if a counselor or a psychologist is treating someone whom they feel has severe symptoms (such as suicidal or highly irrational thoughts), they may suggest a consultation with a psychiatrist to help clarify a diagnosis and possibly prescribe medications.
“It’s been 2 weeks now since I had a fight with my best friend, I feel low constantly. It’s like I am in this darkness and I can see the light. I don’t want to drive or cook which I used to love doing and I don’t even feel like eating, I eat but I don’t like the taste of what I am eating. I feel always tired, always want to sleep but I can’t sleep till late at night and when I do I wake up in 5 or 6 hours. I feel alone, worthless, like I am a burden on everyone, and no one can love me, I fight with everyone. And these thoughts keep making me feel low. I want help, I want to be happy again, I want counseling.”
“I am all alone since almost a year now, I had a breakup after 5 year relationship. He was my everything, my world- the first person I called in the morning, the last person I thought of my future with in the night. I changed my entire self for him and he had left me and gone. I tried everything- I worked more, shopped, stopped spending time with people, I even tried smoking but even now I am lonely, I can not feel happy, I can’t enjoy anything, can’t eat, can’t sleep. Now I’ve started feeling that things will never get better, I can not be helped, there is nothing to be helped, there is no light, no getting out of this perpetual doom, the only out is to die. I feel unworthy of anything even being loved. I feel like dying so I don’t have to feel this sad forever. I feel like ending everything…”
A psychiatrist can help prescribe medication so that Ria feels less sad and negative and alongside a counselor will help her deal and overcome the negative thoughts, emotions, and behavior that maybe stemming from the Breakup.
Psychiatrists, psychologists or counselors often work together. A psychiatrist might make an initial assessment and diagnosis, then refer you to a psychologist for ongoing psychological treatment (talking therapy).
Psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors also work together in hospitals as part of mental health teams.
Just Get Help
If you’re still struggling with the decision between psychology and psychiatry, you can talk it over with your primary care doctor. Different things can work at different points or work together. There is no wrong way as long as you’re doing something and being open with your provider about what’s working and what’s not.
If you’re worried about being depressed or some other mental issue, it doesn’t matter who you go to. Just go to someone.
“One professional is not better than the other, but rather both work as a team to help heal the mind”.