FREE MENTAL HEALTH ASSESSMENT. start here
If you’ve decided now is the time to start working with a mental health provider to improve your well-being, congratulations. Now it’s time to figure out how to choose a psychiatrist.
For many people, deciding to get help is the most challenging component of the mental health care process — often because it’s the last part of the journey you go through without support and guidance. And for some, this may be their first time asking for help.
But if you’ve decided to seek help, you’re now in the process of finding a psychiatrist for your mental health conditions.
Fortunately, several resources — online, in your community and through primary care providers — can point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, this may leave you with too many choices. So, how do you choose a psychiatrist?
Choosing a good psychiatrist isn’t hard, but it may take a few tries to find the right person for you.
Before we get into how to choose a psychiatrist, let’s first clarify how psychiatrists are different from other mental health professionals.
Unlike psychologists and other therapists, psychiatrists are medical doctors who can evaluate both mental and physical symptoms of emotional, behavioral and mental disorders, as well as diagnose conditions and prescribe treatments. You can gain more insight on the differences between a psychologist vs therapist vs psychiatrist in our guide.
Psychiatrists have one of two medical degrees, an MD (doctor of medicine) or a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine), along with advanced qualifications from a four-year residency and a psychiatry specialty.
How do you know when to see a psychiatrist? People seek help from a psychiatrist for different reasons, either a sudden issue, such as panic attacks or thoughts of suicide, or long-term issues, like symptoms of depression or an anxiety disorder. Your reason for reaching out to a psychiatrist may not be the same as the next person’s.
Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat several mental health conditions, such as substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A psychiatrist may recommend a variety of treatments, including medication, psychotherapy, other techniques, such as electric convulsive treatment (ECT), or a combination of therapies, depending on the individual’s needs.
Medication can be prescribed by psychiatrists to treat a number of mental health conditions. Types of medications psychiatrists might prescribe include antidepressants, sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers.
These medications are thought to work by altering certain chemical levels in your brain, which can minimize symptoms of some mental illnesses. For example, a psychiatrist might prescribe antidepressants for anxiety, such as sertraline (Zoloft®) or escitalopram (Lexapro®).
Psychiatrists often prescribe medications in combination with psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy.” In therapy, you’ll learn how to identify unhelpful thought and behavior patterns. Other benefits of therapy include feeling better physically, improved relationships and better coping skills.
Knowing how to choose a psychiatrist doesn’t have to be complicated. Below are some ways to help narrow down your search and how to choose a good psychiatrist.
Before you start scheduling appointments, it’s helpful to understand what you need from a psychiatrist.
Identifying what problems you’re seeking help with is one of the most crucial steps in this process. Once you have words to describe what you want help with — “I’m sad all the time,” “I have no motivation,” “I can’t focus at work” — a psychiatrist will have a better idea of how to guide you through treatment.
There are also more practical questions you can consider before you begin your search for a psychiatrist or therapist.
For instance, one of the first questions you’ll want to ask is about health insurance. Since healthcare can sometimes be expensive (even mental healthcare), it’s important to ensure you understand the costs of working not only with your therapist of choice but also with any subsequent psychiatric care provider they may recommend.
Most insurance companies offer some level of coverage for mental health treatment. First, you should look over your plan’s benefits to determine whether you have coverage for behavioral health.
You’ll want to figure out:
How many sessions are covered
What percentage of each session is covered
In-network versus out-of-network costs
Whether you need a referral from a primary care doctor
Out-of-pocket deductible cost prior to coverage kicking in
Maximum amounts for out-of-network physicians, if any
If you have a psychiatrist in mind, call the office or mental health facility where they work and ask if that person takes your insurance.
The Department of Health and Human Services has an up-to-date questions and answers page about mental health services and health insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.
If you don’t have health insurance coverage, you can contact a local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) representative to help you find affordable mental health care in your area.
When looking for a psychiatrist, it’s important to find one specializing in the diagnosis or concern you’re seeking help for and that they have the appropriate experience and training for what you’re seeking treatment for.
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, for example, you won’t want to go to someone whose career has been spent working with anxiety (unless you’re dealing with that too).
You may also want to find a psychiatrist who has worked with other people with a similar background to yours or who’s easy to talk with about your perspectives.
Once you find a psychiatrist you want to work with, schedule a consultation meeting. You’ll be able to ask more detailed questions, such as what sort of therapy they recommend, how often they’ll want to meet with you and how much it’ll cost — before and after insurance.
Other obvious concerns, like their location relative to where you live or work and their availability for additional sessions, will be based on your perceived needs.
You’ll want to make a list of questions and concerns (schedule flexibility, treatment modalities, etc.) before your consultation.
The best way to know if a psychiatrist is right for you is to meet with them. Sometimes, you may need to even have a few sessions to determine if they’re the right fit.
In the end, how to choose a good psychiatrist depends on what “good” means for your diagnosis and needs.
Now that you know how to choose a psychiatrist and what to look for, where do you go to get help for getting help?
If this is your first time inquiring about mental health care, talking to your primary healthcare provider or therapist is a good place to start. They may be able to recommend a psychiatrist or help you find one that focuses on your concerns.
Psychiatrists can provide comprehensive treatments, including psychotherapy and medication management. Or, if you already have a therapist you like and want to continue working with them, many psychiatrists can collaborate with your therapist.
If you don’t have a regular doctor or therapist, you can always go to a walk-in clinic and ask for a referral from a healthcare provider there.
Alternatively, you can contact your health insurance provider directly to learn about your plan and ask for a reference list of in-network providers (therapists and psychiatrists that accept your insurance) near you. Your health insurance company will also be able to answer any financial questions you may have.
There are also many online psychiatry databases and listings available to help first-time patients find the right psychiatrist for their needs.
Two websites, in particular, are simple and effective: the American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool. The National Institute of Mental Health also has a database and a series of resources available to help you find the care you need.
Finding a mental health provider may feel like an overwhelming task, especially once you factor in the complicated nature of health insurance plans.
Mental health issues can be additionally draining, and we understand that a lack of guidance can be its own hurdle to getting help.
To keep things simple, start with your family healthcare provider. If you don’t have one, a community clinic or various local community agencies might be able to direct you to the right people.
A mental healthcare professional with the correct specialized training for your particular psychiatric conditions is just a call away, and your health insurance may cover at least some of it.
If you’re unsure where to start, our mental health resources guide can be a good first step. You might also consider scheduling an evaluation with our online therapy platform or using our other telepsychiatry services. Whatever choice you make, finding help is possible.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
Start your mental wellness journey today.