What Kind of Doctor Should You See for Your Depression?

Mental health professionals are your best bet

If you think you might have clinical depression, you may be unsure what to do or where to begin, especially if you've never experienced it before. Clinical depression, also called major depression, has ongoing symptoms such as loss of appetite; feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or guilt; feeling tired or restless; losing interest in activities you once enjoyed; isolation; difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much; and weight gain or loss. Here are some tips to help you get started on the path to feeling better.

Rule Out Other Conditions

Your first visit should be to your family doctor for a thorough checkup. There are several medical conditions that can cause symptoms of depression, such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, female hormonal changes, and thyroid conditions. In addition, several medications may have depression as a side effect. If your doctor doesn't find any of these factors as a cause of your depression, you may then be referred to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor.

In 2016, an estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States experienced at least one episode of severe depression. That's 6.7 percent of all adults. For adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 years old, the percentage is even higher, with an estimated 3.1 million adolescents (12.8 percent) in the United States experiencing at least one major depressive episode in a year.

Why a Mental Health Professional Is Best

It's very important—especially if this is your first time seeing a medical professional for depression—that you obtain a referral if your doctor suspects depression. Though your family doctor may offer to prescribe you an antidepressant and he certainly means well, he's not the best-qualified doctor to treat depression. She can't offer you psychotherapy nor is she experienced in the nuances of prescribing psychotropic medications.

Psychiatry is a blend of art and science. Treating depression is not quite as simple as giving someone a prescription for Zoloft or Prozac and sending them on their way. Some people will need several trials of different medications to find one that best relieves their symptoms with the least amount of side effects. Some people will need more than one medication to counteract side effects or to boost positive effects. Most will likely benefit from adding psychotherapy to the mix.

Besides the medication specifics, you may have a completely different disorder and not have depression at all. Bipolar disorder is one such disorder that may be initially misdiagnosed as depression but requires a very different course of treatment. Or you may have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or an anxiety disorder, either of which could be manifesting as depression because it hasn't been treated. A mental health professional is used to seeing a variety of mental health diagnoses and has far more experience than a family doctor in teasing out what's behind your symptoms.

Consider Seeing a Psychiatrist Initially

There's a tendency for some new patients to visit a counselor or psychologist for their initial mental health evaluation rather than a psychiatrist. This can be beneficial for many people, especially if your case is pretty simple, but for others, it's not enough. Only a psychiatrist is also a medical doctor, which means he or she is able to prescribe medications. If your depression stems from a chemical imbalance, talk therapy will not be sufficient to treat you. It's best to make your initial visit to a psychiatrist, who can both prescribe medications and offer you psychotherapy if it's needed. This two-pronged approach of medication and talk therapy is often the most beneficial to patients.

Although your psychiatrist is qualified to offer you psychotherapy services, don't be surprised if he refers you to a second, non-medical professional for your therapy while he concentrates on fine-tuning your medications. There is some debate within the psychiatric community as to whether the role of the psychiatrist as a talk therapist has become outdated as we learn more about the biological basis of depression and mental illness. Some argue that therapy can be left to the psychologists while the psychiatrist concentrates on the complexities of the patient's medical care. However, psychotherapy is a part of psychiatrists' training and they are fully qualified to offer it to patients if they choose.

The Path to Healing

The most important thing to remember about seeking depression treatment is simply to speak up and ask for help. Depression is not a sign of weakness or laziness, it's a sign that something is out of balance. Thankfully, with proper treatment, you can feel well again.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Major Depression. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated November 2017. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml