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An Overview of Who They Are and How They Can Help You


Updated July 29, 2012

What is a psychiatrist? Why do I need to see one?

A psychiatrist is a physician (medical doctor) who has specialized training in the treatment of mental illnesses, including eating disorders. Psychiatrists have completed medical school and at least four years of residency training in the field of psychiatry.

Psychiatrists are an important part of the treatment team for eating disorders. A psychiatrist will evaluate your symptoms and can provide a diagnosis if you don't already have one. Diagnoses are based on criteria provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). They will also prescribe and manage any medications you need to help with the symptoms you are experiencing. Even if you initially do not want to take medication, it can be a good idea to meet with a psychiatrist to learn what your options are. You can learn about the medication(s) available for your symptoms and ask any questions you have. Some psychiatrists also provide psychotherapy as well.

Seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in and is familiar with eating disorders will be the most helpful to you as they will be familiar with the latest research and what a typical course of recovery looks like. Psychiatrists who work with eating disorders, also typically have a good working relationship with eating disorder therapists and dieticians in the community as well. It is important for your treatment providers to consult with each other so that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.

Is a psychiatrist the same as a psychologist?

One of the most common misunderstandings that I encounter among people who have never sought mental health treatment is the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have attended medical school and have the ability to prescribe medications. Psychologists, on the other hand, typically have a doctorate degree in psychology. This is a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), rather than the MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree held by a physician. Although each state and country is different, psychologists are not typically able to prescribe medication.

What do their credentials mean?

After graduating from medical school, all physicians must be licensed to practice in their state. After completing a residency in psychiatry, psychiatrists must complete a written and oral exam in order to become 'board certified' by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Anytime you see the phrase 'Board Certified Psychiatrist,' it means that this psychiatrist has passed these exams and met the qualifications to claim this certification.

Many psychiatrists also have specialized training in a specific age group such as child and adolescence or geriatric populations. If you have questions about any of the certifications or qualifications, feel free to ask them. They should be able to easily explain their specific training and credentials to you.

How do I find a psychiatrist?

If you are going to be using insurance to pay for your treatment by a psychiatrist, it will be wise to either call your insurance provider or look up their provider directory online. This will provide you with a listing of psychiatrists in your area who are considered in-network providers by your insurance company. If there are not any in-network providers who treat eating disorders in your area (or you are considering a psychiatrist not in- network), you may want to find out what your out-of-network benefits are and what the process is for filing those claims.

Another way to find a psychiatrist is by referral. If you already have a relationship with another treatment provider such as a therapist or dietician, they can likely provide you with the names of psychiatrists with whom they commonly share clients. Physicians such as your family physician are also a good source of referral information.
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