Many people struggle with mental and behavioral disorders that require the specialized care of a mental health professional. Fortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health and its care is dwindling. However, many people still don’t know exactly where to start looking for mental healthcare or even what different mental health providers offer. One of the first decisions you’ll make as you begin to explore your behavioral health treatment options is whether to see a psychiatrist or a therapist. There is no single approach that’s right for everyone, so continue reading to make an informed decision for your care.

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental healthcare. Following four years in medical school, psychiatrists must complete 1-2 years of internship training in addition to up to three years as a psychiatric resident. Because psychiatrists have this extensive background training as MDs, they can prescribe medication. Psychiatrists also do not tend to lead therapy sessions, but they may choose to within their practices. Most often, psychiatric care begins with a long initial visit of 60-90 minutes. During this visit, the psychiatrist will make a diagnosis and recommend treatment, which usually includes prescription medications. Then, patients will have monthly or quarterly visits to check in with the doctor. These visits may include a short conversation about the patient’s condition and symptoms, but their primary function is to assess whether medication is working and if any adjustments are necessary. Psychiatrists may make referrals to therapists if they assess that their patients need more hands-on care.

What is a therapist?

Therapist is a blanket term for any healthcare professional licensed to provide therapy. Psychologists, marriage counselors, and social workers are all types of therapists. While licensing requirements vary by state, all therapists will at least have a master’s degree. Therapists see their patients on a more frequent schedule than psychologists, usually in hour-long sessions.

Therapy may include a variety of different strategies, and it often includes “homework” for patients to practice on their own and advance their care. Often, therapists serve in a guiding role as support for their patients. They do not demand any specific actions from their patients, but they offer a listening ear as well as strategies to help with the issues at hand.

Which should you choose?

If you’re not sure if psychiatry or therapy is the right path for you, it’s helpful to self-assess with the following questions. If you answer yes to one or more of the following questions, therapy may be the best place for you to start your care.

  • Are you hoping to avoid or minimize the use of prescription medications in your treatment?
  • Do you want more involved, hands-on condition management from your provider?
  • Are you looking for coping tools and strategies to manage daily stress?
  • Does your mental health issue involve other people in your life, such as your spouse or immediate family members?

Alternatively, if you answer yes to one or more of the following questions, then you might consider meeting with a psychiatrist.

  • Do you prefer the idea of incorporating prescription medication into your treatment path?
  • Are currently dealing with any other existing medical problems? Psychiatrists can perform a differential diagnosis and rule out causes of mood disorders that may be due to other medical issues.
  • Are you experiencing depressive symptoms that are having a significant impact on your body and daily life (e.g. you can’t get out of bed or have had a major loss of appetite)?

If you’re still not certain about whether you should choose to see a therapist or a psychiatrist, it’s important to remember that the most crucial step is to schedule an appointment directly with either one, since consulting one will give you access to the other if and when it is necessary.

Where should you start when seeking mental healthcare?

Even if you are regularly struggling with anxiety, depression, relationship problems, or another mental health concern, it’s often tough to take the first step toward seeking care. If you’re totally unsure where to turn, you can talk to your primary care physician for recommendations. However, you do not need a referral to speak to a therapist. You might also find that both therapists and psychiatrists may refer patients to one another as they identify different care needs. So, there is really no wrong place to start.

Starting therapy online can be an approachable way to begin caring for your mental health. With MeMD you can book affordable, convenient therapy and/or psychiatry sessions online from the privacy of home. We can connect you to a qualified mental health professional within 24 hours.


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