You think you may be depressed. Over the past few weeks, you’ve been listless. You’re not eating much—and you are sleeping even less. You can’t muster the energy for the things you usually enjoy doing. You can’t be bothered to return the phone calls of concerned friends and family. Simply stated, you’ve got a serious case of the blues and think it’s time to consult a medical professional. But who exactly should you consult?
Michael Groat, M.D., Director of the Adult Division of the Menninger Clinic, says that both psychologists and psychiatrists can help successfully treat depression.
“Psychologists are specifically trained in assessment and intervention, and they focus on helping patients with their psychological strengths and weaknesses. They may have a Ph.D. [Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology] or a Psy.D. [Doctor of Psychology] degree, which means they have an undergraduate degree and then studied psychology for several years in graduate school. The Ph.D. tends to be more research oriented, while the Psy.D. focuses on assessing and treating clients. But both kinds of psychologists usually treat depression and anxiety with different methods of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, and behavioral activation techniques,” he says. “Psychiatrists, on the other hand, come out of the medical tradition. They go to college, then to medical school to get their medical degree, and then do a residency, which is several years of training specific to psychiatry. We use a biopsychosocial model and focus on the biological aspects of psychiatric illness, and then use medications to help treat depressive symptoms. We also may use talk therapy and cognitive/behavioral approaches. But that said, both psychologists and psychiatrists use effective, evidence-based interventions to help depressed patients.”
That said, Groat cautions that a psychiatrist may be your best first step to treatment in one of two different situations. First, if you are currently dealing with other existing medical problems.
“Because we come from the medical tradition, a psychiatrist typically looks at your complete medical history,” he says. “There are a variety of physical ailments, like problems with thyroid function, that may mask as depression. Psychiatrists are uniquely trained to do a differential diagnosis and rule out causes of mood disorders that may be due to other medical issues.”
The second situation where individuals may be better served by a psychiatrist is when depressive symptoms are having a significant impact on the body—and your daily life activities.
“When someone is reporting severe somatic, or body, disturbances, whether it’s a loss of appetite, no sex drive, problems sleeping, feeling consistently anxious, or really having difficulty functioning, it’s probably time to see a psychiatrist. If you can’t get out of bed or if you are tearful all hours of the day, that’s a big problem,” he says. “When the basic core functions of being human are skewed—those being sleep, eating, and sex—you need someone who can give you the right medications to alleviate those symptoms. Otherwise, you’re probably going to continue to struggle.”
But outside those two situations, Groat says the important thing is that individuals suffering from depression seek out help from a qualified mental health professional, whether they are a psychologist or psychiatrist. And in many cases, Groat says, the two disciplines work closely together to help patients. Consulting one will give you access to the other if and when it is necessary.
“When we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about a mind-body connection. So a person who is suffering from depression can benefit from both a psychologist and psychiatrist,” he says. “The psychiatrist to help find the right medication to alleviate depressive symptoms and then a psychologist to help them talk through their issues and make them feel like they aren’t so alone. So I don’t think it has always has to be an either/or situation when you are seeking help with your depression, just as long as you are reaching out and getting help.”