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Guide to Psychiatry and Counseling

Psychiatry and psychology are overlapping professions. Practitioners in both -- psychiatrists and psychologists -- are mental health professionals. Their area of expertise is the mind -- and the way it affects behavior and well-being. They often work together to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental illness. And both are committed to helping people stay mentally well.

But there are differences between psychiatry and psychology. And people sometimes find those differences confusing, especially when they are looking for help. To make matters even more confusing, psychiatrists and psychologists aren't the only mental health professionals you can choose from. There are mental health counselors, social workers, nurses, and others who deal with issues of mental health. And if you consider the multiple approaches to treatment, ranging from counseling to various forms of psychotherapy, the whole mental health system begins to look like a maze that's nearly impossible to navigate.

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But here's a guide you can use to help you make your way through that maze.

Where to Start

Issues with mental health, especially if they're chronic, can be debilitating. Your body can respond physically to depression or anxiety much like it does to physical illness. And sometimes, mental problems can actually be caused by a physical condition. So the first person to see if you think you are having a mental problem is your primary care doctor.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, how long you've been having them, and whether they're constant or come and go. Your doctor will check for physical problems that could be causing your symptoms and help you decide what type of mental health professional and what kind of therapy might be best for you.

Types of Mental Health Professionals

Your doctor might refer you to any of the following mental health professionals:

Psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in preventing, diagnosing, and treating mental illness. A psychiatrist's training starts with four years of medical school and is followed by a one-year internship and at least three years of specialized training as a psychiatric resident. A psychiatrist monitors the effects of mental illness on other physical conditions, such as problems with the heart or high blood pressure. 

As a doctor, a psychiatrist is licensed to write prescriptions. Many mental disorders -- such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, or bipolar disorder -- can be treated effectively with specific drugs. If you are working with a psychiatrist, a lot of the treatment may be focused on medication management. Sometimes medication alone is enough to treat the mental illness. Sometimes a combination of medication and psychotherapy or counseling is needed. If that is the case, the psychiatrist may provide the psychotherapy, or the psychiatrist may refer you to a counselor or other type of mental health professional.

Psychologist. A psychologist has a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) in psychology, which is the study of the mind and behaviors. Graduate school provides a psychologist an education in evaluating and treating mental and emotional disorders. After completing graduate school, a psychologist completes an internship that lasts two to three years and provides further training in treatment methods, psychological theory, and behavioral therapy.

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