How to Know If You Need a Psychiatrist

I use the word “doctor” quite liberally and often use it interchangeably with “psychiatrist.” The reason is quite simple – psychiatrists are, in fact doctors, they are just specialists. Yes, that’s right, your psychiatrist has all the rights and privileges that any other doctor has and could probably remove your spleen, if the occasion called for it.

Nevertheless, there are some crucial differences between “doctors” in general and “psychiatrists” in particular. And sometimes you need a psychiatrist and sometime any old doctor will do. So how do you know if you need a psychiatrist?

What are Psychiatrists?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialized training in the area of mental health. So instead of just being a general practitioner, they attended extra schooling to specialize in mental health. A psychiatrist has about a decade of schooling beyond high school (depending on the country).

This is not to be confused with psychologist who is not a medical doctor and instead is a specialist in psychology. They are therapists and cannot prescribe medication.

Nor is this to be confused with your family doctor, who is a general practitioner. A general practitioner’s job is to take care of the daily cuts and scrapes of life and to know when to refer a patient to someone else.

Mental Illness and General Practitioners

It is my opinion that anyone with a mental illness should have a proper mental health evaluation by a psychiatric professional – a psychiatrist. General practitioners do a world of harm by not being able to recognize complex mental illnesses, often diagnosing “depression” when it’s not depression at all. General practitioners don’t diagnose cancer – a specialist does that – and the same should be true of a mental illness.

After you’ve been properly diagnosed by a psychiatrist it may then be possible to have your condition managed through a general practitioner either now or in the future, but only if you’re a bog-standard case of something simple or have been stable for a long time.

When Do You Need a Psychiatrist?

So, outside of diagnosis when do you need a psychiatrist?

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a general practitioner – they’re just not a specialist, that’s all. Because remember, a psychiatrist sees patients all day, every day, who are just like you, a general practitioner does not. A general practitioner does physicals and eye exams and prescribes antibiotics and looks down people’s throats all day. None of that is going to help you with a case of bipolar disorder.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

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25 Responses to How to Know If You Need a Psychiatrist

  1. Patricia Bosley says:

    Thank you. I’m so grateful to you for your informative blogs.
    I actually have a great psychiatrist that I have been seeing for years. That’s great if your symptoms are a bay for the most part but I think that it is important for people to know that if they are not getting better with their psychiatrist that it is okay to change him/her. I have a friend who is scared to change for offending him but her meds are clearly off.

  2. cindyaka says:

    I firmly believe that a psychiatrist is the most qualified to treat and evaluate my bipolar status. I was originally misdiagnosed as depressed by me general practitoner. I later was advised to see a psychiatrist who correctly diagnosed me. I have a terrific psychiatrist who listens to my thoughts, concerns and input. I am currently stable; I doubt that would have happened if I was still treated by my family doctor.

  3. penny says:

    I just spent another weekend attempting to refuel to face the week ahead. I opened my laptop and “googled” High-functioning Bipolar. I guess I was looking for solace or camaraderie, albeit solo. I can honestly say i have never posted on a blog. So, what “googled” up was Natasha’s article from 1/2011 titled “High Functioning Bipolar”. I read it and knew I could have written the same theme of words. Maybe it was exactly what i needed to hear.. “if you can do it, I’ll do it”. I am exhausted but i never seem to stop making life more challenging. There are some days after 11 hours working in my supposedly 8 hour/5 day per week job as an outpatient mental heath clinic therapist, that i know there is little difference between me and my patients. They see their therapist and psychiatrist and I help them along… I see my therapist and psychiatrist and they help me along. I’ve tried every psychotropic medication over time and i’ve burned the tail off of their effectiveness. Perhaps I hold the hope for my patients, when they have no hope left. As my truly wonderful psychiatrist told me about 10 years ago, “We’re all just Bozo’s on the same bus”. But this bozo is tired of managing life with mental illness. I’m getting too tired. It’s so much and too much work.

  4. Patrick Quinlan says:

    Dear Natatasha.
    In the UK a Physciatrist gets one years extra training.If a physciatrist took out your spleen then sue the hell out of them because they are not qualified to do that.Its called a surgeon(and they get a lot of extra training not just one year.

    A Physiologist has studied one field for more than the Psychiatrist has studied many and no they cant prescribe pills but a nurse practitioner can do that so whats the point.
    I noticed from reading your posts that you have a fixation on physical illnesses that impact the mind understandable and if i suffered from Bi-polar i wouldn’t need or want to go anywhere else.On these topics i trust you completely as you put stuff in terms a layperson can understand.However you protelyse on other subjects and ask tobe taken on faith with no supporting evidence to back you up.
    Psychiatrists are good for physical ilness(maybe) but thats all.
    Question for you(mainly as i dont know where to look.What is the average length of time for treatment of none physical illnesses treated by a psychiatrist and the average length of time when treated by a psychotherapist(non psychiatrist)
    Finally,you criticize GP’s but i have had two that both correctly diagnosed me and one psychiatrist that got it wrong.
    Some GP’s are good but depending on your illness all Physicists are wrong.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that the systems were the same everywhere. I can’t comment on the UK system of licensing as I’m not familiar with it.

    I couldn’t say what the average length of time is for a psychiatrist or psychologist to treat a mental illness however it is the psychiatrist’s (or another doctor’s) responsibility to do med checks periodically and that goes on for as long as you take medication.

    Each person’s experience is going to be different with a GP or a psychiatrist, certainly.

    - Natasha Tracy

  6. sammie says:

    Hi, I just sort of stumbled on your website. Not sure where to turn. I have a friend that is extremely depressed and I don’t know where to turn. She has no money. Are there any places that will treat people by their ability to pay? I could help a little, but not sure what treatment costs these days.

    Thanks for any input.


  7. Hi Sammie,

    I recommend you take a look at the hotlines and resources page here and they can help you further.

    - Natasha

  8. nacaranda says:

    I know I have a mental health problem. I have been fighting it by trying to hide it, but I think it has influenced my life in many different negative ways. I am not sure who do I need to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I haven’t talked to my dr. about this issue, but he is a pill dr. and I don’t want him just to give me a pill. I need to find out issues from my childhood from sexual abuse to lack of trusting. Where should I go? Who do I see?

    Thanks in advance!

  9. Hi Nadaranda,

    In my opinion, if you’re dealing with issues from child hood, sexual abuse and trust, you need to speak to a psychologist – generally. It’s always possible you will need a bit more help than a psychologist can offer, but I would start there if I were you.

    - Natasha Tracy

  10. Natasha B says:

    Hi Natasha
    I was admitted to hospital for 6 weeks with severe depression and phycosis some years back i was never dx with anything , after going high from anti ds on a number of occassions my pdoc says its cyclothymia but I think that’s wrong just wondered if you could shed some light on it

  11. Anil says:

    Hi Friends,
    I dont know whether i need a psychiatrist or not. So please suggegst.
    I am getting angry in silly things whcih later i realize that i shouldnt be angry at all for that. I dont think i am stressed at work at all but I am nit enjoying my work.
    I am becoming a short tempered man which is really screwing my personal life . I am not able to concentrate on anything always i want to do something some hiw I am getting distracted by giving some excuse.also thisbis impacting my personal as well as career growth.

    Friends i really need help what should I do now? Whenever i am getting angry i am reqching at the top also ruining few stuffs at home whatever comes my way at that time. Eagerly waiting for a suggestion.

  12. Sarah says:

    Anil, these are some of the problems I was having which I ignored, six years ago before I became mentally ill. If I could have my time over I would have consulted a psychiatrist straight away. A psychologist would also be a good idea. Now is the time to start observing your problems and keeping a notebook. This kind of evidence is helpful to a psychiatrist.

  13. kopal shah says:

    i have an headache from last 6 days.. n cant concentrate on my work.

  14. Jenn Davies says:

    I was wondering if I should take my daughter to a psychiatrist instead of a general practitioner, but I guess this answers that question. I always thought the main difference was in the ability to prescribe drugs, but this includes even more specifications. It’s always better to talk to a specialist, and mental health is no different. |

  15. Renita says:

    For those of us with a diagnosable mental illness I believe that for the best results the services of both a psychiatrist (primarily for the physical symptoms, especially if they are severely debilitating) and ideally a psychologist (or simply a counsellor, which is often cheaper) for the mental health symptoms are needed. The problem for me is that where I live, while psychiatrists are completely/indefinitely paid for, a psychologist (on my extended healthcare plan) is not. I am limited to only a few psychologist (not the simple counselor type) visits per year. So what I do is read a lot of self help books and try to wade myself through a number of related self help workbooks then I make use of the limited professional counselling for the areas that are harder for me to work through. It’s expensive and a lot of work and sometimes I feel like giving up but I know from experience that the end result is worth it even if it only allows me to move a tiny bit forward.

    I went to a GP for over a year who prescribed one psychiatric medication and I got progressively worse until I ended up in hospital. The hospital then referred me to another psychiatrist when I got out and that has made all the difference…

  16. Stacey says:

    Hi just wondering if anyone could advise?
    I’ve been to see a psychologist about my mental health state.
    At first he said I had clinical depression and anxiety until I told him how wild I was a few months back..I was literally buzzing from head to toe for a month!
    He’s arranged for me to see a psychiatrist (waiting for appointment) all he said to me was I definitely have a mood disorder and he’d like me to see the psychiatrist for a diagnosis??
    What should I expect?

    He basically knows my lows are extremely low and my highs are mental..but I never feel normal w lol at least for the last couple of years! I’m always really depressed for a few months..on a massive high for a month and then somewhere a bit more happy than normal happy?
    It don’t make sense and I don’t get it!? I’m frustrated and agitated too.
    Help! What will the psychiatrist think of this?

  17. y kane says:

    was seen by my doctor told her iwas inlot of pain have not slept for weeks she says ineed to seepsychiarist iam not going itold her iam not mad just in pain

  18. y kane says:

    whent to hospital for scan told by gp every thing ok by doctor wants to seeyou sure iknow results thats all iwant

  19. Dr Musli Ferati says:

    Anymore, clinical psychiatrist is a doctor who posses clinical and theoretical knowledge to diagnose and medicate patients with mental disorder. Since mental illnesses are complex and have got perplex nature, there are others specialist and assistants who take places on the comprehensive and current treatment of people with mental disorders. Among them, clinical psychologist, social workers, psychiatric nurses are participant of psychiatric staff of any psychiatric department. But clinical psychiatrist is the leader of professional team, which one treats and manage patient with any psychiatric entity. So, it is preferable to see any psychiatrist when you have got any mental difficulty, which ones is chronic and persistent to common medical treatment. Moreover, clinical psychiatrist is able to order due psychiatrist drugs, which are principal approaching to appropriate treatment of respective mental disorder. Under his supervision and close follow up is psychiatrist team who participate on complex and multimodal treatment of patient with mental illness. Today there are many sub-specialist in psychiatry, such are child, psychiatry, biological psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, social psychiatry and so on. Clinical psychiatrist and clinical psychologist are specialist of mental pathology, but they have different approach to mental pathology. The firs one have medical approach while psychologist uses psychologist tests and admonitions to help psychiatric patients. However, psychiatrist and psychologist are equal pair on modern treatment of psychiatric patients. They work yp by complementary and collaborative principle in complex psychiatric treatment.

  20. marisha says:

    Hi well this is a first, i need to know if i need to see a psychiatrist or maybe just a psychologist or maybe just get some fam terapy

  21. Alex Trodder says:

    You make a great point about how a psychiatrist must first be a doctor and then go on for additional specialized training to become a licensed psychiatrists. This means they have all the background and training as a general physician. This can make obtaining psychiatric medication much easier. Additionally, an experienced psychiatrists can also have a better idea of how different pharmaceuticals work and if they will be a good choice for you and your medical conditions. Thanks for your post.

  22. syed hassanain says:

    Hi.i feel very depressed,anxiety.i don’t what happened to me.sir please me.what should i do.i feel tired always,get bored .i lost my interest in any thing.i am worried. I can’t concentrate in any thing.sir plz help me

  23. Hi Syed,

    I’m sorry you’re going through this. It must be very hard. You need to contact a professional such as a psychologist or a doctor for help. You could also contact a helpline. Please see this page for more information on helplines and resources:

    I hope you feel better soon.

    - Natasha Tracy

  24. Emily says:

    Okay, so, all my friends have been noticing changes in my mental state. One asked if I have Bipolar Disorder and I know that I have OCD and severe anxiety yet my mom won’t take me to a psychiatrist. What do I do? I want to know what’s going on with me and I’d like to know. How do I convince her to take me to see a professional?

  25. Shannon says:

    I was wondering if you had any advice on a GP that is not being very helpful at recognizing something that is wrong. When my mom died 7 years ago, I switched doctors to one that was close to home and that my dad’s side of the family loves. I have been experiencing issues with my mental health for years (I didn’t go to my previous family doctor often due to distance so he would not have known about issues)

    7 years of going to my current doctor for depression and mood issues and not getting proper treatment (He honestly tried to prescribe me self esteem books, which I really do not feel like that is my issue) I asked about seeing a psychiatrist because I can’t keep living like this. I’m okay for a couple weeks, maybe a month and then I crash into depression and stuff – and asking for mood stabilizing medication from my doctor is like pulling teeth. He replied that a psychiatrist wouldn’t want to see me because they’re really busy and only want to deal with people suffering severe issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

    I’ve tried explaining to him it does effect my life and work, having distracting breakdowns but he doesn’t seem to take it seriously. I end up usually getting less then a months worth of antidepressants and just not going to the doctor’s for months after an appointment because visiting him causes great stress because he doesn’t listen or try to actually help me. My family worships him because they’ve had him for 40+ years. I can’t go to the doctor’s office without crying and getting worked up because of the stress.

    Is there a easier way to see a psychiatrist? Thank you.

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