Finding a Psychiatrist

Gloom that never seems to lift. Overwhelming feelings of dread. Out-of-control drinking or drug use. Thoughts of suicide. "Voices" whispering strange and confusing commands.

The reasons to seek psychiatric help are many. The causes of these symptoms can be just as numerous, however, so no mental illness diagnosis should be considered without a thorough examination. But when it's time to get help, an important first step in the treatment process is finding a psychiatrist who's right for you.

Where do I start?

You can begin with your own physician (or your child's pediatrician). Tell your doctor what you are feeling. If, after a thorough physical examination to check whether any other medical illnesses may be contributing to your symptoms, talk to your doctor about seeking psychiatric treatment. Ask your doctor for the names of two or three psychiatrists. You should also request a copy of your medical records for the psychiatrist to examine.

Your local medical or psychiatric society (like GLIPS), community mental health center, local hospital and medical school are also good sources for locating psychiatrists. Of course, you might also seek the advice of family, friends, colleagues or members of your church.

What questions should I ask before making a choice?

Once you have the names of potential psychiatrists, you may want to talk to them or a staff member over the phone to choose the most appropriate one. Here are some questions you might want to ask:

1. What is your location and appointment availability?

2. Do you specialize in a particular treatment or therapy?

Beware of any psychiatrist or other therapist who espouses one brand of treatment as the only one that works. Psychiatrists have a multitude of ways to help you and will work with you to create a treatment program appropriate for you.

3. What will psychiatric care cost?

Psychiatrists charge by the session, typically 45 or 50 minutes once a week. The initial evaluation, which may include psychological testing, typically costs extra.

A psychiatrist cannot tell you in a phone interview how many sessions will be necessary for treatment, but he or she should be willing to discuss with you his or her fee policies. Any who refuses to do so should be crossed off you list.

4. Are you willing to accept payment directly from the insurance company instead of from me?

Many psychiatrists are willing to file the necessary paperwork if they are eligible to receive payment for their services directly from the insurer. Others expect payment in full from you for each session, and you can file the paperwork with the insurer to obtain reimbursement.

If you or your child is covered under certain kinds of managed care plans (such are a health maintenance organization or preferred provider organization) and the psychiatrist is a recognized provider in that plan, the plan will pay the therapist directly. You may be responsible for a copayment. Before seeing the psychiatrist for the first time, it's a good idea to check with your plan to be sure that the psychiatrist is a recognized provider.

5. What if I don't have insurance or mental health benefits under my health care plan?

If you don't have insurance and you can't afford the fees quoted to you, ask whether the psychiatrist is willing to adjust his or her fees based on family income or can refer you to someone with such a policy.

These telephone interviews should help you select which psychiatrist is best for you and your family. Chances are good that the person you select will work out, but if the first time you meet with him or her is disappointing, don't be discouraged. The first few appointments with any therapist are often upsetting, and it takes time to build up trust in someone with whom you are sharing highly personal information. If you continue to feel uneasy, however, you may need to try another therapist. Again, this is not uncommon. The more work you put into choosing a psychiatrist, the greater probability that your choice will work out.

Re-printed with permission from the American Psychiatric Association's website. More information on this and other helpful topics can be found there.