We totally understand. Caring for your mental health can be tough even on good days. Not to mention the days when we’re in the blues and feeling unmotivated. Seeking the right support is indeed overwhelming.
And when we do reach out, people often throw around vague suggestions including psychotherapy and psychiatry. But what do they actually mean? How do we know which path is the best for us? Well, we’re here to untangle your confusion so that you make more empowered decisions for your wellbeing.
What are the differences between psychiatry and psychotherapy?
In a nutshell, psychiatric treatment involves medication whereas psychotherapy involves only talk therapy. Different kinds of problems, however, will respond differently to various treatments. Therefore, choosing the right treatment can feel confusing. First, let’s better understand the characteristics of each treatment.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, uses methods including counseling and discussion, to treat mental, emotional, behavioral, and personality disorders.
It is provided by counselors. psychologists, or other licensed professionals who have been trained in social work and psychoanalysis.
Psychotherapy aims to help people achieve a better sense of compassion and self-understanding. Patients also learn strategies to help regulate emotions around distressing life events.
Psychiatry is a field of medicine focusing on the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders through medication.
It is provided by professionals who are medically trained and can prescribe medication. These people have a medical degree, making them psychiatrists or psychiatric nurse practitioners.
Psychiatry aims to help patients develop the right medication plan and prescribe these medications.
Which path should I take?
What type of treatment you need depends on your condition and goals.
Psychotherapy is helpful if you are dealing with stress, family or marriage difficulties, school, work, or social situations. It develops your self-awareness and teaches you coping skills.
Psychiatry is helpful if you are experiencing more severe symptoms. This includes having violent thoughts toward others, hearing or seeing things that aren’t there or urges to engage in self-harm or suicide. Psychiatry is also recommended if you’ve just experienced a sudden traumatic event. Your treatment plan will include medication and ongoing check-ins to monitor any side-effects of your prescription.
Helpful questions to help you decide
Are my symptoms disrupting my everyday life? If not, maybe you’d like to start with talk therapy.
What tools and strategies have I tried to manage my mental health? If you’ve experimented with psychotherapy in the past, and it hasn’t helped, you may try psychiatry.
Am I open to including medication as part of my treatment? If you are, you could try psychiatry.
Combining psychiatry and psychotherapy
Some studies suggest that the combination of psychotherapy and medication may be superior for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders (1). This is because psychotherapy provides the tools for patients to manage life stressors, while medication helps reduce day-to-day symptoms.
A good analogy would be a leg injury. Your doctor prescribes medication to manage the pain. At the same time, you may work with a physiotherapist to strengthen supporting muscles. All of which help you recover faster.
How do I know if my treatment is working
First, it’s important to know that improvements require time and patience. Recovery can also differ from person to person. However, you will know that your treatment is working when you notice changes in your state of mind. You also begin to feel a sense of ease, more self-compassion, and more resilience when faced with stressful events.
Most patients report feeling better within the first few weeks to months of talk therapy. Moderate duration therapy treatments (12–16 sessions) have been scientifically shown to result in improvements (2).
In terms of medication, it typically requires a few weeks for your body to adjust before you start noticing full effects. Again, recovery is not a one-size-fits-all. Some people may take medication over a long period to help manage symptoms, whereas others may only need it temporarily.
Despite their differences, the ultimate goal of these treatments is to help you live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. So, if one treatment doesn’t help, don’t lose hope and know that recovery takes time. When in doubt, you can always seek the help of a professional to inform you of the best evidence and make a specific recommendation for your condition.
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