If you have depression (major depressive disorder), your primary care doctor will likely refer you to a mental health expert like a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specializes in mental health, or other mental health professionals like a therapist or a licensed counselor.
Research shows for about 8 in 10 people, treatment can help improve or help manage symptoms of depression in just 4 to 6 weeks.
Here’s a look at what you can expect when working with one of these specialists and what you can do to make the most of your treatment.
What to Expect During Your Major Depressive Disorder Appointment
Your appointment with your psychiatrist or psychologist might last over an hour. The long appointment will give them a chance to ask about your medical and general life history to get a better picture of what’s going on.
They’ll likely ask you to fill out questionnaires you might have done during your visit with your primary care doctor. Because a psychiatrist has specialized medical knowledge about mental health concerns, they may go into more detail.
You can expect the provider to:
Ask questions about your medical history. Be honest and open about your emotional and mental health history. Start from the beginning if you must and describe times at which you’ve felt low or if you’ve had anxious feelings or stress. Let your doctor know how this affects your day-to-day life. They might also go over your general health and ask for details about your family medical history.
If you’re not sure about your medical history, ask your previous doctors to transfer your medical records to your provider’s office.
Perform a psychiatric evaluation. They’ll ask you to go over all of the symptoms you have or notice. Point out which ones are severe, moderate, or mild. They might have you fill out multiple questionnaires to figure out the issues. Often, your mental health provider will refer to the guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a standard manual used by mental health professionals, to make a diagnosis.
Order tests. If this is your first time meeting the doctor, they might choose to redo some of the same lab tests or order some new ones. It can include blood tests, blood pressure checks, and certain imaging scans. This will help them understand what is going on.
Do a physical exam. If you’re visiting a psychiatrist, they might do a general physical exam. This will help them rule out any physical causes.
Everything you discuss with your psychiatrist or therapist is almost always confidential. They might share it with medical experts on your team if they believe it will help with your overall treatment.
However, in some extreme cases, such as if you’re a danger to yourself or others around you, they’re required by law to inform authorities. Rules may vary by state. If this is the case, they’ll usually tell you about it beforehand.
Agreeing on a Treatment Plan for Your Major Depressive Disorder
Once your doctor figures out the type of depression you might be facing, the next step is to work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you. For that, they’ll make a decision based on:
- Your health goals
- Personal needs or preference
- Whether you have other physical or mental conditions
- Family situation
Your treatment can include prescription medications (called antidepressants) or certain therapies such as psychotherapy or talk therapy. It can often be a combination of the two. In some cases, a medical doctor might refer you to a therapist or psychologist for regular counseling sessions.
If you have a severe case of depression symptoms, your doctor may suggest a short or long hospital stay. They may also recommend joining an outpatient program that is specifically designed to help you improve your symptoms and general health.
In some cases, for certain types of depressive conditions, especially if you’re not able to take antidepressants, your doctor may suggest other treatment options called brain stimulation therapies. Common procedures include electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
During these therapies, an electric current or magnetic pulse is passed on to your brain through attachments placed on your temple or scalp. They’re designed to boost your mood and lower depression symptoms.
Going Over Questions and Concerns About Your Major Depressive Disorder
At the end of the appointment, your doctor should give you space to go over your questions and concerns to help you understand what to expect moving forward. This is also an opportunity to check if the doctor or provider is the right fit for your needs.
You can ask questions like:
- Are there alternative treatment options?
- Are there side effects I need to be aware of?
- How long do I need to be on this medication regimen?
- What if I don’t like the treatment or don’t respond well?
- What lifestyle changes do I need to make?
- How can I reach you during an emergency?
- Are you willing to work with my other health care providers?
Also, talk to your doctor about how much say and involvement you can have in your care. This is known as the shared decision-making approach. This will allow your doctor or therapist to closely work with you or your close family or friends who have the lived experience of depression and its immediate effects on your life and of those around you.
Through a shared decision-making approach, you can also collaborate to keep a close check on your preferences, values, and health goals.
At the end of your first visit, a psychiatrist will likely set up shorter follow-up visits to check on your progress and fill in or change necessary prescription medications. If you need in-person therapy, you might meet more regularly. If you feel this isn’t the right fit for you, look for a second opinion.
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National Alliance on Mental Illness: “How to Prepare for Your Psychiatric Appointment.”
Mental Health America: “Preparing for Appointments.”
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: “Depression Statistics.”
Mayo Clinic: “Depression (major depressive disorder).”