Is a Psychiatrist the Mental Health Professional for You?

It can be difficult to choose the mental health professional that fits your needs. The media often portrays psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers interchangeably, even though there are significant differences in the training these professionals receive, and the services they offer. April’s weekly blogs will focus on helping you to understand the differences between these professionals so that you can make an educated decision about which services you’d like to pursue. This week: Psychiatrists.

Degree, Education & Training:

Psychiatrists have the degree of M.D. (Medical Doctor) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). They typically attend four years of medical school, one year of medical internship and at least three years of specialized training as a medical resident in psychiatry. They are trained in “psychopharmacology,” which is the process of prescribing medication for mental health disorders. Psychiatrists must be licensed in order to write prescriptions, and many states require continued education and training through the psychiatrist’s career in order to maintain licensure and stay up-to-date on relevant issues. In some states where psychiatrists are scarce, medical psychologists who have a doctoral degree in psychology and a master’s degree in psychopharmacology, are able to prescribe medications. Psychiatrists receive very limited training in counseling techniques, and most are not qualified to provide counseling services without additional training and certifications.


Psychiatrists offer medication prescription and management for mental health disorders. A visit with your psychiatrist is likely to be similar to a visit to your primary care physician. The initial session may focus on gathering background information related to your family’s health history, your health history and the pattern of your mental health symptoms. Subsequent sessions are likely to be brief (15-30 minutes) and focus on symptom worsening or improvements, so that adjustments can be made to your medication regimen. Note that psychiatrists are in limited supply in many areas of the country, and the high demand for their services may lead to limited scheduling availability, so it is best to seek services as soon as possible if you believe the need is present. While some people choose to receive psychiatric medication from their primary care physician, it is important to recognize that many physicians are not trained to accurately identify mental health issues or provide effective treatment, so it is best to seek services with a licensed psychiatrist.

When Should You Visit a Psychiatrist?

Oftentimes, a discussion with your primary care physician may lead to questions about symptoms that are not explained solely by medical disorders, such as lacking energy, poor sleep, anxiety or nausea associated with stress. A psychiatric evaluation can determine whether mental health disruptions are a factor, and whether medication may be necessary to address your symptoms. Many psychiatrists recommend a combination of medication and counseling to receive the maximum benefit associated with treatment; medication can help to stabilize symptoms, and counseling provides you with an understanding of your symptoms, related triggers and effective coping strategies.


Next Week’s Blog: Is a Psychologist the Mental Health Professional for You?

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.