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 nurse practitioners, 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 (M.D. or D.O.) 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 is trained to differentiate mental health problems from other underlying medical conditions that could present with psychiatric symptoms. They also monitor the effects of mental illness on other physical conditions (such as problems with the heart or high blood pressure), and the effects of medicines on the body (such as weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, sleep, and kidney or liver functioning).