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Mental healthcare with a psychiatric specialist vs a primary care provider
Content reviewed and updated on 8/27/2021.

Mental Healthcare Providers: Which is Right for You?

Caring for your mental health is essential to your well-being. Whether you’re starting your journey or looking for a change, it’s important to find the right treatment. And the right treatment starts with the right mental healthcare provider.

Choosing the right provider can be overwhelming because there is no “one size fits all.” Here are some of the most common types of providers who treat mental health conditions:

  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists
  • Therapists
  • Primary care providers (PCPs)
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs)

These providers can offer different treatment methods, but only some can prescribe medication. They can also specialize in different areas of mental health. So which one is right for you?

It’s important to find a professional that understands your needs best. Let’s explore two common types of mental healthcare providers: psychiatric specialists and primary care providers.

Psychiatric Specialist

Primary Care Provider

Provide specialist care for more complex and severe symptoms

Example: patients with comorbid conditions

Can diagnose, prescribe medication, provide therapy and other interventions (structured counseling, motivational enhancement, behavioral therapy, etc.)

Great for patients who have multiple  mental health conditions or a complex diagnosis

Provide care for general health conditions and mild to moderate mental health symptoms

Can diagnose, prescribe medication, recommend lifestyle changes 

Great for patients who have mild to moderate symptoms

Example: patients with mild ADHD who need straightforward medication management.

 

WHAT IS A PRIMARY CARE PROVIDER?

A primary care provider (PCP) is a general healthcare practitioner. They provide preventive care and see people with common medical problems. This includes doctors, physician’s assistants, and nurse practitioners, for example. Primary care providers can diagnose and treat patients with many mental health conditions. They can also prescribe medication.

Seeing a primary care provider for mental health is a common starting point for many patients. Most Americans already have a primary care provider for their general health needs. Primary care providers can help monitor your whole health, not only one aspect of it.

Starting your mental healthcare journey with a PCP is both common and convenient. According to an ADDitude survey, more than 44 percent of respondents with ADHD went to their PCP for an initial evaluation and diagnosis. 

SHOULD I SEE A PRIMARY CARE PROVIDER FOR ADHD TREATMENT? 

PCPs play an important role in diagnosing ADHD and creating long-term treatment plans for their patients.

ADHD is one of the three most common chronic disorders seen by PCPs. This means that PCPs often serve as the first point of contact for the patient and their ADHD diagnosis. A consult with a PCP can be the best first step to getting treatment for ADHD.

It’s estimated that fewer than 20% of adults with ADHD are currently diagnosed and/or treated. This means that 80% of adults with ADHD are undiagnosed and missing out on treatment. And unfortunately, ADHD is a lifelong condition. Undiagnosed adults with ADHD may have struggled with it since childhood–without even knowing it.

Here’s who may consider seeing a primary care provider for ADHD:
 

  • Patients who have mild to moderate mental health symptoms
  • People looking to start their mental health journey
  • People diagnosed with ADHD who need straightforward medication management
  • Patients who don’t need forms of therapy related to more complex mental health concerns

WHEN TO SEE A SPECIALIZED PROVIDER FOR MENTAL HEALTHCARE

PCPs can diagnose and treat many mental health conditions. However, PCPs may not have extensive knowledge and training in ADHD or other mental health disorders. They often refer patients with more complex conditions to a specialist.

Specialist mental healthcare is often needed when a person has comorbid conditions, when multiple conditions occur at the same time. For example, a patient with ADHD might also struggle with depression and anxiety. These conditions affect how much monitoring and support a patient needs.

Read on to learn about mental healthcare with psychiatric specialists.

WHAT IS A PSYCHIATRIC SPECIALIST?

There are different types of psychiatric specialists who can provide in-depth mental healthcare. It’s important to know which types can diagnose conditions and prescribe medication.

A psychiatrist is a physician with an MD or DO degree. They have extensive training in diagnosing and treating psychiatric conditions. Their physician training is what sets them apart from other mental healthcare providers.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are another type of psychiatric specialist. A PMHNP is a licensed registered nurse with a master’s or doctorate in nursing degree. They receive special training in mental health conditions. They are sometimes also referred to as psychiatric nurse practitioners (PNPs).

Other types of providers, such as Physician’s Assistants, can also get certified as psychiatric specialists.

WHAT MENTAL HEALTHCARE SERVICES CAN A PSYCHIATRIC SPECIALIST PROVIDE?

Psychiatric specialists are sought-after mental health providers who can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Prescribe medication
  • Provide psychotherapy (talk therapy or behavioral counseling)
  • Serve as patient advocates and crisis intervention specialists

In some states, PMHNPs are required to work with a collaborating psychiatrist with an MD degree to prescribe medication.

SHOULD I SEE A PSYCHIATRIC SPECIALIST FOR MY MENTAL HEALTHCARE?

A psychiatric specialist is best for people who need in-depth mental healthcare.

Here are some examples of patients who may consider seeing a psychiatric specialist:

  • Those with a history of more complex mental health conditions
  • A person who wants longer follow-up visits with a dedicated provider
  • Patients with comorbid conditions that need a specialist’s evaluation

If you’re not sure if you need to see a psychiatric specialist, you can start by seeing your primary care provider. They can refer you to a specialist if needed. Psychiatric specialist visits are usually covered by insurance plans.

MENTAL HEALTHCARE WITH AHEAD PROVIDERS

Different patients have different needs. We help to navigate different needs by offering diverse treatment options. To learn which services are available near you, visit Ahead’s online helpdesk.

One of Ahead’s treatment options is a monthly membership with primary care providers. This plan is best for people who need straightforward medication management for ADHD. Here is what you can expect with an Ahead membership:

  • Treatment from a physician or family nurse practitioner
  • Full-length evaluation with a therapist and primary care provider
  • Custom-tailored treatment plan
  • Online follow-ups with the same primary care provider
  • Free home delivery of medications, if prescribed
  • Unlimited messaging to your care team through the patient portal
  • Shorter follow-up visits (15 minutes every 1-3 months)
  • Medication management for mild to moderate ADHD

Ahead also offers mental healthcare treatment with psychiatric specialists. This option is best for those with more complex needs and who want more in-depth treatment. Here’s what you can expect with Ahead’s psychiatric specialist care:

  • Treatment by a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner
  • Full-length evaluation at your first online visit (50 minutes)
  • Custom-tailored treatment plan
  • Online follow-ups with the same specialist
  • Free home delivery of medications, if prescribed
  • Unlimited messaging to your care team through the patient portal
  • Longer follow-up visits (25 to 50 minutes every 1-3 months)
  • Medication management for ADHD, depression, and anxiety

Finding the right mental healthcare provider doesn’t have to be hard. We simplify the process to empower you wherever you are in your journey.

Whether you pursue care with a specialist, PCP, or another type of provider, you deserve the best care available. Your provider can help you understand your mental health. Take the first step and get started on the path to a calmer mind.

Mental healthcare designed for you

Our providers are experts in medication, therapy, and everything in between. Book online and get care rolling with board-certified, expert providers.