Should You See Your Primary Care Physician For A Mental Health Issue?

If long winters and dark days tend to send you into a seasonal funk or even depression, you're not alone -- nearly 7 percent of the U.S. population suffers from major depressive disorder, while almost one in five individuals has an anxiety disorder (often in conjunction with depression or another mental health issue). While the longer days of spring can inspire you to seek professional help to deal with an issue that may not be evident to others, you could find yourself reluctant to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. Should you seek mental health diagnosis or treatment from your primary care physician (PCP)? Read on to learn more about how a PCP may be able to help you tackle your mental health issues, as well as some situations in which he or she may refer you to a specialist. 

Can a PCP diagnose or treat mental health issues? 

Today's medical field is becoming increasingly specialized -- while PCPs of yore often treated everything from allergies to tonsillitis, today's physicians will often refer patients to an allergist, dermatologist, or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist for further treatment. As a result, it can be easy to think that your PCP may not be equipped to help you with anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue. 

However, PCPs can be uniquely helpful when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of relatively minor mental health issues. Your PCP should be able to put you through a brief psychological examination and prescribe some antidepressants (or change your dosage or prescription) to help you start to battle your depression. Depending upon the perceived severity of your mental health issue, your PCP may opt to continue treatment him- or herself or refer you to an experienced psychiatrist for follow up treatment.

Because you have some history and an established patient relationship with your PCP, he or she may be more able to notice minor changes in your personality and gently tease out whether you're dealing with anxiety or depression. You can also find it easier to make an appointment with your PCP than a psychiatrist, and won't need to worry about dealing with the potential backlash associated with seeking mental health help if you live in a community or work in a profession where psychiatric treatment is stigmatized.

When should you bypass your PCP and seek psychiatric help?

If you're struggling with thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or other red flags, you should seek professional help from a licensed psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. These mental health professionals are equipped to deal with individuals in crisis, and can help talk you down from the ledge. While a PCP can provide you with resources to help, a psychiatrist may be able to provide you with more immediate solutions to your life-threatening problems.