Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Just as you would see a specialized doctors for specialized healthcare issues, ie. an oncologist for cancer or an OB/GYN for pregnancy, seeking specialized mental health care providers, such as psychiatrists, is essential for addressing mental health concerns effectively.

  • Many people turn to their family doctors or primary care physicians for mental health issues due to trust, familiarity, and the perceived stigma around mental health. Primary care providers can offer initial assessments and basic medications, making it a convenient starting point for mental health concerns, but they are not specialists in mental healthcare.

  • Hospitals can provide crisis intervention and connect individuals with mental health specialists during emergencies. However, relying solely on emergency rooms is not a sustainable long-term solution due to limitations in comprehensive care, overcrowding, and costs.

What Doctor Should You See for Psychiatric Medicine?

This content has been updated from previous article on October 8, 2020.

When people have cancer, they see oncologists. When they are pregnant, they see OB/GYNs. And when people have trouble with their hearts, they go to cardiologists. You get the gist, when we have specialized health problems, we see specialized medical providers.

So why is it that so many people continue to seek psychiatric care from providers who do not specialize in psychiatric care?

People often turn to their family doctor or primary care physician (PCP) when experiencing mental health issues for several reasons. First, there’s a preexisting relationship of trust and familiarity with these healthcare providers. Patients may feel more comfortable discussing their mental health concerns with someone they already know. Second, there’s a perceived stigma surrounding mental health, and some individuals may be reluctant to seek specialized psychiatric care, fearing judgment or discrimination. Additionally, family doctors and PCPs can provide initial assessments and prescribe basic medications, offering a convenient first step in addressing mental health issues.

Hospitals and Mental Health Care

Individuals facing mental health emergencies, such as suicidal thoughts or pressing conditions that require immediate attention like severe depression and anxiety, may opt to visit the hospital’s emergency department to access immediate assistance and intervention. At the hospital, they receive crisis stabilization and are connected with mental health specialists who can address their acute mental health needs promptly. This choice ensures timely and specialized care for anyone facing a similar situation. Furthermore, doctors may notice mental health issues when treating a hospitalized patient for other issues.

While emergency rooms and hospitals can help, people should not rely on these sources of help alone. A recent study found that of all hospitalizations involving a person with severe mental illness, hospitals overlooked 1 in every 4 cases. While patients sometimes get the help they need during hospital stays, they may get overlooked.

Emergency visits to the hospital for mental health concerns can indeed save lives in critical moments, but they are not a sustainable long-term plan for comprehensive mental health care for several reasons. First, emergency rooms are typically designed for immediate crisis intervention, not ongoing mental health treatment. The care provided is often short-term and may not address the root causes or offer comprehensive therapy. Second, ERs can be overcrowded and stressful environments, which can exacerbate mental health issues.

Finally, the cost of emergency room visits can be substantial, especially for those without adequate insurance.  Establishing a consistent, long-term care plan with mental health specialists is usually more effective for sustained recovery.

Can You See Your Family Doctor for Psychiatry?

Family doctors, or primary care providers (PCPs), can and do prescribe psychiatric medication when needed. However, mental health disorders often require specialized expertise in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed therapists possess years of training and experience in understanding the intricacies of mental health conditions and providing tailored therapeutic interventions. They can offer various psychotherapies, which are essential for addressing underlying emotional and psychological factors. Additionally, mental health issues often require a holistic approach, considering physical, emotional, and social aspects, which specialists in the field are better equipped to handle.

A primary care provider (PCP) is the doctor, physician’s assistant, or advanced nurse practitioner who patients visit for common medical issues, preventative care, and referrals to specialists as necessary. Your PCP is without a doubt one of the most important members of your care team. You may get to know your PCP very well over time, and your whole family may even go to them.

If mental health problems come up, it’s natural to go to your PCP first. And they do help in many situations. However, many patients find that seeing a specialized mental health care provider in addition to their PCP improves their outcomes.

Who Are Psychiatric Care Providers?

There are three types of providers who can provide specialized psychiatric care and prescribe psychiatric medications:

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who go through additional training to specialize in psychiatry and become board certified in this area of medicine. Advanced nurse practitioners and physician assistants who specialize in psychiatry have advanced degrees in medicine and work under the direction of a psychiatrist. They also typically get board certified in psychiatry.

Psychiatric care providers do not usually provide therapy. Instead, they decide whether or not prescription medication can help. If so, they can prescribe the appropriate medication. Often, psychiatry specialists work alongside a team of care providers to ensure the best patient outcomes.

Why Choose a Board-Certified Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists and the providers who work under them have years of experience helping people with their mental health. While most doctors get a few weeks of psychiatric training, psychiatrists go through residencies dedicated to this area. They are experts, and you deserve expert care.

Contrary to popular belief, psychiatric care professionals do not always prescribe medication. For some patients, they may say that medication is not suitable and suggest other treatment options. Psychiatrists, with their extensive training and specialization in mental health, offer a comprehensive approach beyond medication management. They can provide therapies like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Ketamine Treatment.

Building a Comprehensive Care Team

One of the keys to successfully mental health care is having a compassionate team of care providers on your side. Depending on your needs, the professionals on your care team may include:

  • A psychiatrist, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant
  • A psychologist, therapist, or counselor
  • A support group or group therapy sessions
  • Your PCP
  • Social workers
  • Educators and school staff (for students)
  • Other specialists as needed

LifeStance believes that all members of the care team should work closely to ensure the patient gets comprehensive and compassionate care. Our psychiatrists and advanced nurse practitioners work with your PCP to ensure any medication that you take also supports your other health goals. Furthermore, they work with our licensed therapists and psychologists to support your mental health goals.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.

Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.