You have two kinds of professionals that can help you. There are professionals who perform talk therapy and there are professionals who prescribe medicine.
Professionals who do talk therapy include psychologists, therapists, social workers, counselors, and analysts. They can help you sort out your feelings and find solutions to problem thoughts or behavior.
Professionals who can prescribe medication are doctors (with a few exceptions). Doctors specializing in mental illness are usually psychiatrists. It is important to not confuse a “psychiatrist” (who prescribes medication) with a “psychologist” (who treats patients with psychotherapy) because those are distinctly different professions requiring different degrees of education and employing different strategies for treatment.
Psychiatrists can be either a doctor of medicine (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) and can diagnose your illness and prescribe medication. Some even provide psychotherapy and counseling. Unfortunately, psychiatrists are in such high demand in some places that they must see many patients in a day, which makes their appointments shorter, and often leaves no time to do any counseling outside of the assessment of your current state and the adjustment of your medication. Some patients feel offended that they don’t get more time or interaction with their psychiatrist. It is important to remember that medical care is not a “the-customer-is-always-right” situation. Remember that it’s your responsibility to give your doctor all the relevant information about your mental and physical state so that they can treat you properly. Your care will only be as accurate as the information you provide.
A therapist is a professional who does psychotherapy or talk therapy. There are many kinds of talk therapy available, and different individuals can have different specialties. A therapist may specialize in eating disorders, children and adolescents, personality disorders, PTSD, bipolar, or depression, and so on. Most professionals have studied many illnesses and are proficient in many kinds of talk therapy.
Several kinds of professionals perform psychotherapy or talk therapy. This field includes psychologists (Psy. D. or Ph.D.), licensed clinical social workers (L.C.S.W., or L.I.C.S.W.), and licensed professional counselors (L.P.C.). Colloquially, we use the word “therapist” to describe someone who uses dialogue to help their patients process their feelings and relieve mental anguish. These professionals do not prescribe medicine, but use talk therapy in various forms and can help you learn coping tools and strategies for treatment. Usually, reducing suffering is the primary goal of any kind of therapy.
What professionals you need on your team depends on your specific illness and its severity. Some people can successfully treat their illness through talk therapy by itself, and others need medication in addition to therapy. There are even people who get medical help and do not see a therapist, though I personally can’t recommend it. If you are on medicine and do not see a therapist, you will definitely want to cultivate your coping skills. If your illness is severe, you do want to get both talk therapy and drug therapy at the same time. This gives you your greatest chance for remission.
Be aware that there are lots of procedures and policies you will have to follow in your recovery. Doctors’ offices, hospitals, and pharmacies all have policies that will not make sense to you, and it will sometimes be frustrating to get the help you need. You do have to jump through hoops involving paperwork and legal restrictions. Please do not be afraid or dissuaded by those hoops. Just keep taking the next step, making the next phone call, finding out the next task and completing it. This is a very tall order while dealing with depression, so ask someone to help you if you can. It is okay to ask loved ones for help; they usually do want to help you.
If you cannot find a psychiatrist on your own, make an appointment with your general practitioner or family doctor. In that appointment, the doctor will either write you the referral you need to become a new patient of a psychiatrist, or they will assess you themselves and possibly prescribe medication. This second option is considered less optimal, but some doctors bend the rules in tough situations, especially if insurance is an issue and they believe the diagnosis to be simple to medicate like major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder
Once you have a referral to a psychiatrist, you will make an appointment. Before the appointment, take detailed notes of your symptoms, any troubling thoughts (don’t be embarrassed of them, the doctor has heard lots of extreme things, and none of those things are anything to be ashamed of), patterns in mood or behavior, what makes your symptoms worse, and any medicines you already take. It is very important when dealing with doctors that you have everything written down. You may see a doctor for ten minutes in some appointments. Every sentence counts.
Getting in to see a therapist does not usually require a referral. Simply call their office and schedule to be seen as a new patient. There will be waiting lists at some places, so look around your area at what is available. Googling “psychologists in my area” or “therapists in my area” is a good step to take. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is also a great resource for finding care in your area.
Seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist at the same time can change your life dramatically. Medication can help very quickly, while therapy helps you over the long term to develop better coping skills for dealing with life.
Finally, my disclaimer: I am a layperson and a patient. I am not a doctor, therapist, or trained professional. This article is full of things I know and things I have learned from reputable sources. There may be inaccuracies. Do not base your treatment off of things you find on the internet. Qualified professionals are available to you. Please seek real treatment.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
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I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.