Who should I go to with my mental health issue?

Just like we have doctors to treat physical illness, we have specialists to treat mental health problems

When you have a toothache, you go to a dentist for treatment; for a joint ache, you go to an orthopedist. Most of us know about various specialists who treat different types of physical health problems. Unless of course, the question is one about the mind and its health.

In this article, we'll talk about experts who specialize in mental health issues and play key roles in identifying and treating psychological and psychiatric health issues. The team of mainstream experts includes psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, lay counselors, psychiatric social workers and psychiatric nurses.

Here is a brief description about each expert and their capabilities, which will help you decide who to contact if you need help.


What is psychiatry?

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that deals with assessing, diagnosing, treating, and managing various mental disorders which affect emotion, cognition, and behavior. Doctors who specialize in psychiatry are known as psychiatrists.

Who is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems. During their extensive medical training, psychiatrists are trained to understand the brain's functions and the complex relationship between the body and brain. They are best qualified to distinguish between physical and psychological causes of both mental and physical distress.

How do psychiatrists tell what is wrong with their patients?
Because they are physicians, psychiatrists are qualified to conduct a full range of medical and psychological tests to understand the complete physical and mental state of the patient. They evaluate the entire medical and psychological data, make a diagnosis, and prescribe the appropriate treatment.

What treatments do psychiatrists use?
Psychiatrists use a wide variety of treatments including medication. They may also prescribe hospitalization, depending on the patient's condition and severity of the illness. If a patient requires psychotherapy in addition to medication, a psychiatrist may refer them to a clinical psychologist.

Where do psychiatrists work?

Psychiatrists are employed in various fields, including clinics, general and psychiatric hospitals, university medical centers, community agencies, primary health care centers, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, industry, government, defence sector, courts and prisons, schools and universities, hospices, and many other places.


What is psychology?

Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior. All aspects of thoughts, feelings, emotions that in turn motivate to action are scientifically evaluated through various assessments and tests. Psychological knowledge is applied to understanding and solving problems in different spheres of human activity, including the assessment and treatment of mental health problems.

Who is a psychologist?

Psychologists have a degree in psychology and are experts in human behavior. They use scientific methods to study the factors that influence people's thoughts, perception, emotions, and actions. Using evidence-based strategies and interventions, they help people overcome challenges and cope with life issues such as relationship problems, parenting issues, challenges in adolescence, lifestyle effects on health, chronic illness, and so on. Psychologists use their clinical skills to work with people who have mental health issues like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, panic disorder, substance abuse, etc.

Although the basic science and structure of the subject is the same, psychologists treat people in various fields of work.

  1. Clinical psychologist: Tries to reduce psychological distress, enhance and promote psychological wellbeing. They also work with persons who have been diagnosed with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction or substance abuse.
  2. Counseling psychologist: Works with people who may not have a diagnosed illness but have mental health issues. They treat the underlying problems that may have caused this imbalance. They work across a diverse range of problems, such as bereavement, issues with past and present relationships, behavioral problems, etc. Counselors also help people learn to change attitudes, quit smoking or conduct their lives in a more meaningful manner.
  3. School psychologist: Works with children and adolescents to facilitate their learning and development. School psychologists also work at educational institutions or with the governing bodies that create educational policies.
  4. Forensic psychologist: Deals with the psychological aspects of legal processes, including applying theory to criminal investigations, understanding psychological problems associated with criminal behavior and psychological support to those who are incarcerated. The forensic psychologist is also known as 'criminal psychologist', 'legal psychologist', or 'criminologist'.
  5. Neuro-psychologist: Deals with relationship between the brain and its neuro-psychological functions, such as vision, memory and smell. They also work on rehabilitation of people with brain injury or other neurological disease such as stroke, dementia, tumor, and degenerative brain diseases.
  6. Occupational/ vocational psychologist: Helps organizations get the best from their workforce and improve the job satisfaction of individual employees. Psychologists specializing in this field help build strategies on how to motivate staff, recruit the best people for the job, help individuals gain new skills, plan careers, or cope with redundancy. Occupational psychologists may also design or use psychological tests as a way of measuring people’s suitability for a particular role.

What is a psychological assessment?

A psychological assessment is conducted by a psychologist to gather information about how people think, feel, behave and react. Psychological assessments include various methods including an interview, observation, assessments, formal psychological testing, and consultation with other professionals to gather relevant information.

Psychological testing involves conducting a test, and then scoring and interpreting the results of this test.

A psychologist takes the information gathered from the different assessment procedures to develop a complete report of the person’s abilities and behavior. This information is then used as a basis for making recommendations for treatment. For example, career planning in the case of children and young adults, or deciding a treatment plan for an adult with a mental illness. The information gathered is documented and presented as a psychological report.

What is a psychological test?

A psychological test is conducted to measure the abilities such as aptitude and intelligence in individuals. These tests are based on standardized psychological and scientific theories.

The format of psychological tests can vary from pencil and paper tasks to computer-based tasks; and may include activities such as putting together puzzles, drawing, solving problems and recalling information. Psychological tests may also involve observing someone’s interactions and behavior. Based on the results of these tests, psychologists draw inferences about an individual’s inherent abilities and potential. There are also projective techniques that try to access the unconscious – such as Thematic Apperception Test and the Rorscharch test.

What aspects are assessed with a psychological test?

Psychological testing covers a number of different areas:

Adaptive behavior assessments: These are conducted to measure social and practical skills. For example, how a child acts and behaves in a social setting, whether they have the necessary life skills to cope at school or home. This test is usually conducted along with cognitive tests, especially for individuals who have difficulty in completing daily tasks or where low cognitive functioning is suspected.

Aptitude testing: This measures a person's ability to perform various tasks. Some individuals may have more mechanical ability than others, some may be good in language and reasoning skills, while some may be good AT creative work. Aptitude testing focuses on measuring these differing abilities and is often used in job selection or vocational testing to determine how well an individual may be suitable for a specific job based on their strengths.

Cognitive testing: Assesses an individual’s problem solving, reasoning, vocabulary, comprehension and memory abilities. Also known as intelligence tests, IQ tests, or general ability tests, they are often used in educational fields, for example, to help children identify their strengths and reach their full potential.

Educational/Achievement testing: This is conducted to test how much an individual has progressed in learning a specific subject (mathematics, reading, etc.) and identify any difficulties they may have in learning that subject. Achievement tests are frequently used in educational testing to assess a child's progress.

Forensic psychological testing: These tests include cognitive, personality and neuro-psychological assessments to assess and confirm whether the person committed a crime or not. They are mostly used in the legal field.

Mental health assessment: This test gathers information about medical history, family history, and the current mental health condition of the individual. The assessment helps identify any mental health issue and decide on the diagnosis and treatment.

Neuro-psychological testing: Analyzes how brain works and identifies any problems in the brain. For example, a person with brain injury or a person with the risk of dementia may be tested to check their memory.

Personality assessment: Focuses on the personality traits of the individual. This test helps to evaluate if a person in more introverted or extroverted, self-assured or reserved, and how they react or respond to various life situations.


What is counseling?

Counseling is a specialty and a type of applied psychology that focuses on helping people resolve emotional, behavioral or social problems arising from various life situations. For example, issues at the workplace, school or college, family problems, etc. Counseling uses various structured processes, either through directive or non-directive guidance for the person to make rational decisions. Counseling work is completely confidential.

Counseling focuses on the following:

  • Resolving normal or moderate issues arising due to life events and other stressors rather than serious mental health issues.
  • Understanding the thought process, beliefs, and emotions, which in turn lead to action.
  • Giving importance to current events rather than past events.
  • Developing creativity, self-expression, assertiveness for one's own needs.
  • Improving conscious, rational thinking, and emphasizing on positive response to life situations.

Who is a counselor?

Counselors have very varied training, from a year long intensive training to a few months by correspondence. A counselor is trained in the art of listening and have skills to help the person analyze their problems and find a rational solution. Counselors deal with various issues that are as broad and varied as those undertaken by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists.

If the counselor observes that counseling isn't addressing the person's needs because the underlying condition is severe and may need treatment, they are referred to a mental health expert for diagnosis, treatment, therapy, or medication, as the case may be.

Psychiatric Social Worker

Psychiatric social workers are mental health professionals trained to help patients find solutions to many life and social issues that come with mental illness. A patient's relationships, job situation, and quality of life are significantly affected due to the illness, and this can be a very difficult situation. Social workers help patients cope with these aspects of their lives. 

Psychiatric social workers do the following as part of their regular duties:

  • Assess patient's emotional, social, economic, and mental health needs.  
  • Educate the patient and family members about the illness and help them understand the patient's treatment plan.
  • Evaluate patient's socioeconomic status and look for community resources that would be useful for them.
  • Facilitate individual, group, and family therapy sessions.
  • Help improve communication between the patient, family members, and healthcare team.
  • Create a plan to integrate patients back into the community.

Overall, they play an important role in helping patients have a smooth transition back to family and community.

Psychiatric Nurse

Psychiatric nurse is a mental health professional qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat individuals with psychiatric disorders. They work with individuals, families, groups, and communities, and assess their mental health needs. They can also serve as educators, counselors, or therapists for patients and their families. 

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