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Psychiatrist or psychologist?

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If you, or someone you know has mental health concerns, you should seek help. Do you look for a psychiatrist or psychologist? These two in particular amongst many others have been used interchangeable by the lay public and even some professionals in the field for a long time (Professional and clinician are one and the same and will be used interchangeably in this article). In essence, confusion has been raised about who to see and who treats what. Basically, where do you go? Unfortunately, their respective academia and institutions concerned have not assisted in clarifying these issues. I have decided it is time to educate the public what these two clinicians are and how they treat the mentally ill. Yes, there are similarities, but there are also important differences. Hopefully the following information will be of much help.

Getting Help
The primary care doctor should be the first port of call. This professional can usually give you the name of a psychologist or psychiatrist to contact. However, it must be noted that there are many types of mental health professionals. Finding the right one for you may require some research. Talk with your medical doctor. Below is a listing of types of mental health treatment professionals to help you understand the differences between the services they provide: Social Worker, Professional Counselor, Mental Health Counselor, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor, and a Pastoral Counselor. The key professionals that diagnose and treat mental illness are as mentioned earlier psychiatrists and psychologists. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor with special training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional illnesses. Like other doctors, psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medication. A psychologist is a professional with a doctoral degree in psychology, two years of supervised professional experience, including a year-long internship from an approved internship and is trained to make diagnoses and provide individual and group therapy.

Who Can diagnose a mental illness?
This is the bone of contention and knowing who can accurately diagnose mental illnesses is a relief from the maze of respected professionals out in the field. When concerning symptoms arise and you locate the right professional for YOU, then a diagnosis can be made. A diagnosis is however the beginning to recovery. The benefits of an accurate clinical diagnosis are immeasurable because it can help someone reclaim their life. This professional must be able to recognize the distressing symptoms in a client and then differentiate among the wide-ranging possible disorders that could cause those symptoms. This clinician must have enough training and experience to confidently make an assessment that will then lead to treatment actions. Only certain practitioners are qualified to diagnose mental illness, and fewer practitioners are qualified to prescribe the full range of appropriate treatments. Following are some of these professionals.

Psychiatrist and Psychologist
Both psychiatrists and psychologists are typically trained to practice psychotherapy i.e. talking with their patients about their problems. They must not be confused with one another, but the differences in background and training translates into different approaches to solving mental health problems. Psychologists look closely at your behaviour. If you’re depressed and can’t get out of bed, there’s a behavioral activation. This professional will track sleep patterns, eating patterns, and the negative thoughts that might be causing or contributing to the problem. Psychologists also conduct a battery of psychological tests that can aid the psychiatrist in making an accurate diagnosis.

Psychiatrists have a stronger sense of biology and neurochemistry. Before a client is diagnosed as depressed, medical reasons will be ruled out after extensive tests i.e. like not having some vitamin deficiency or thyroid problem. Once they’ve made a mental health diagnosis, psychiatrists often prescribe medications. Another possible advantage of seeing a psychiatrist is that, as a medical doctor, he or she has the knowledge and training to evaluate underlying medical problems or drug effects that could cause emotional or behavioral symptoms. Psychiatrists can also work more readily with your primary care doctor or other specialists including a psychologist.

The three main differences between psychiatrists and psychologists are: (a) Psychiatrists are medical doctors, psychologists are not. (b) Psychiatrists prescribe medication, psychologists cannot in most countries. (c) Psychiatrists diagnose illness, manage treatment and provide a range of therapies for complex and serious mental illness. Psychologists focus on providing psychotherapy (talk therapy) and tests to help patients. Both psychiatrists and psychologists understand how the brain works, our emotions, feelings and thoughts. Both can treat mental illness with psychological treatments (talking therapies).

Psychiatrists are medical doctors with at least 11 years of training – usually more (years mentioned in this article does vary across institutions all over the globe). They first do a medical degree at university. Next they spend at least one or two years training as a general doctor. They then complete at least five years training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Psychologists have at least six years of university training and supervised experience. They also hold a Doctorate level qualification in psychology. If they have a Doctorate (PhD) a psychologist can call themselves ‘Dr’, but they are not medical doctors. Psychiatrists can provide a wide range of treatments, according to the particular problem and what will work best. These include: medication, general medical care, including checking your physical health and the effects of medication, psychological treatments, and brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Psychologists focus on providing psychological treatments. Someone who has attempted suicide or has suicidal thoughts will usually be seen by a psychiatrist. Psychologists are more likely to see people with conditions that can be helped effectively with psychological treatments. This might include behavioral problems, learning difficulties, depression and anxiety.

The case of Latifu
He was afraid of what an official diagnosis might mean. If he really has depression, would it be for the rest of his life? And how would people treat him differently? So, when his friend told him, “Oh, I feel really sad like that sometimes. And, eventually, it goes away. It’s nothing,” Latifu was all too ready to accept the explanation. But his own immense sadness didn’t go away. In fact, it expanded into fatigue, where he found it difficult to get up and do things. Even having a shower was a chore. Disquieting dark thoughts continued to weigh heavily on his mind. Eventually, those thoughts became suicidal. A close elder whom he confided to offered a different direction of enquiry: get professional help. When friends and relations keep their distance or your symptoms suggest any possibility of a mental illness, a clinical diagnosis is the key to getting better. Waiting out these symptoms, will not only aggravate the situation but cause irreversible mental damage. So, who can diagnose mental illness? For someone to identify an accurate diagnosis from a wide range of possible mental disorders, they must have extensive experience. They must also have proper training because there are specific processes in place that guide clinicians to narrow in on the true cause of an individual’s symptoms. This clinician must also be able to recognize and identify when multiple disorders are occurring together. Finally, they are able to point a client in the direction of appropriate treatment options. The good news is that Latifu was able to see a psychiatrist and has been successfully treated.

Working with the mental health professional
Look up this professional on the social networks. If you are comfortable with what you see, then please let your phone do the initial ‘leg work’ for you. Call to ask about their approach to working with patients, their philosophy, whether or not they have a specialty or concentration. If you believe you have a rapport in your deliberations, the next step is to make an appointment. On your first visit, the clinician will want to get to know you and why you called him or her. This professional will want to know—what you think the problem is; about your life; what you do; where you live and with whom you live. It is also common to be asked about your family and friends. This information helps the professional to assess your situation and develop a plan for treatment. As you progress through the treatment process, you should begin to feel gradual relief from your distress, to develop self-assurance and have a greater ability to make decisions and increased comfort in your relationship with others. Therapy as part of the treatment plan may be painful and uncomfortable at times but episodes of discomfort occur during the most successful therapy sessions. Mental health treatment should help you cope with your feelings more effectively.
The following are a few common types of therapy:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has two main aspects. The cognitive part works to develop helpful beliefs about your life. The behavioral side helps you learn to take healthier actions.

Interpersonal therapy focuses largely on improving relationships and helping a person express emotions in healthy ways.
Family therapy helps family members communicate, handle conflicts and solve problems better.
Psychodynamic therapy helps people develop a better understanding about their unconscious emotions and motivations that can affect their thoughts and actions.

Art therapy can include using music, dance, drawing and other art forms to help express emotions and promote healing.

Psychoeducation helps people understand mental health conditions and ways to promote recovery.


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