Your Primary Care Provider Can Help Treat Your Mental Health, Too
March 22, 2021
When you think of receiving mental health services, you might think this means an appointment with a counselor, clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. But did you know that primary care providers, such as family doctors and internists, can play an important role in providing mental health services too?
They can and they do: Family physicians are one of the primary sources for mental health care in the United States, says the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
Primary care physicians are the primary managers of psychiatric disorders in one-third of their patients, the AAFP reports. And two-thirds of patients with depression receive treatment for their depression in the primary care setting, the AAFP says.
Adults made an annual average of 30 million mental health-related physician office visits between 2012 and 2014, according to data published in 2018 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While psychiatrists provided care for 55 percent of these visits, primary care physicians provided care for 32 percent.
So you don’t have to wait for an appointment with a psychiatrist if you feel the need for mental health care services. You can bring up any concerns about your mental or emotional health with your primary care provider.
This has become even more important in the COVID-19 pandemic era, as many lives have been upended due to working from home, remote classes, joblessness, grief and isolation.
Mental Health Services Often Start With Primary Care
Most psychiatric care starts with a primary care provider, even if a patient eventually winds up seeing a mental health professional. This is because many primary care providers screen their patients for depression during their annual visit, as recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
A simple two-question inquiry is often the starting point. Your primary care provider asks you how often, over the last two weeks, you have had little interest or pleasure in doing things or were feeling down, depressed or hopeless.
If your responses indicates depression is likely, and then you will be asked a few more questions. Depending on your responses and symptoms, your primary care provider may prescribe antidepressants, give you a referral for psychotherapy services, or both.
How a Primary Care Provider Can Help
Many primary care offices have begun to embed a social worker or behavioral health manager as part of the care team. In this way, mental health care can be conveniently managed at the primary care office. The social worker or behavioral health manager can meet with you in a phone call or in a video chat between appointments with your primary care provider.
As part of your primary care team, a social worker or behavioral health manager will discuss your symptoms, history and treatment and work with you to address your mental health needs, as well as provide brief therapy and education. The social worker works with your primary care provider to develop the best plan for your mental health care and consult with a psychiatrist who can guide your care to ensure high-quality treatment or connect you with other mental health specialists.
For many patients, a prescription for antidepressants and follow-up visits may be all they will need. A primary care provider can choose from several antidepressants to safely prescribe to their patients; follow up visits with a primary care provider tend to be much shorter than a therapy session with a psychiatrist.
If you do not show improvement after a few months, your primary care provider may decide to change your medication or might recommend starting psychotherapy if it wasn’t part of the initial plan.
Primary care providers most commonly treat depression, anxiety and emotional distress related to grief. People with conditions that are more difficult to treat, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, will typically need to see a psychiatrist. But once the person’s condition is stable, a primary care provider can often take over the role of prescribing medication refills.
Your primary care provider also can help to find a psychotherapist, though a referral usually isn’t needed.
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