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Why should I consider seeing a psychiatrist instead of my family doctor for my mental health?

Not many people are comfortable asking their friends or neighbors for a referral to a psychiatrist.  There is often an inner sense of shame or embarrassment when people are considering getting a psychiatric consultation.  Even in today’s more “enlightened” environment, the social stigma associated with what is a medical condition (an imbalance in the brain’s chemistry) keeps many from seeking the help they need from family doctors OR psychiatrists.

Most people who grow tired of struggling with mental health disorders initially go to their family doctors. However, it is valuable if the patient knows the pros and cons of consulting their family doctor about their symptoms as opposed to a psychiatrist, who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental illness.

Studies show that 74% of people seeking help for depression will first go to the family doctor. Of these cases, as many as 50% are misdiagnosed (1). General practitioners or internal medicine specialists are trained to recognize mental illness, but do not have the updated, specialized education, and expertise of psychiatrists to correctly diagnose and treat patients optimally.

Depression is the most frequent brain imbalance diagnosed by family doctors, especially since depression has become more actively discussed in the media and has become less stigmatized. If the family doctor chooses not to make a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist, he or she will most likely treat it with an SSRI such as Prozac. But the true condition may turn out to be something other than depression. Not recognizing mania combined with depression, for example, is a risk because this is how many bipolar disorders are missed. Even when patients are correctly diagnosed with depression from their family doctors, 80% are given too little medication, for too short a time (2). Starting with the family doctor might still be a good idea for anyone suspecting a mental disorder however, because their physician can rule out possible physical causes for various symptoms. Some tests that are commonly done are EEGs, MRIs, PET scans, and lab work to rule out seizure disorders, and to determine pituitary and thyroid function.

In mainstream mental health, medication is an important component in treating mental illness. Although the family doctor can prescribe medications, a psychiatrist is more familiar with the wide range of psychiatric medications, how to use them in combination with other medications, and how to manage their side effects (3).

If you see your internal medicine physician and are concerned that additional investigation is needed or you just want to explore additional options with an expert in the field, call our office to schedule a diagnostic evaluation today.  Just like you would see an orthopedic surgeon for your bum knee or an allergist for your annoying hay fever, a specialist like Dr. Sambunaris can get to the right diagnosis and the right solution faster for your brain chemistry imbalance!


(1) “Understanding Depression Treatment“. WebMD Medical Reference. (2005).

(2) Ibid.

(3) “Choosing a Mental Health Provider: How to Find One Who Suits Your Needs”. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2005).

Angelo Sambunaris, M.D.

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