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How Do I Choose the Right Doctor?

How to find the best therapist for you. And the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

I've been fighting depression for years and I'm now thinking about seeing a professional. How do you choose the right doctor? What's the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

The first thing to know is that there is help for depression, and a standardized protocol has been shown to be most effective. That protocol consists of getting a combination of cognitively oriented behavior therapy with medication as needed. Therapy and medication together are more effective than either approach individually. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are trained to dispense medication and evaluate patients; psychologists are trained to conduct psychotherapy (as well as to research treatment methods that are tailored to various illnesses and personality types).

However, as with any skill, both psychology and psychiatry are conducted with varying degrees of expertise and results depend on the clinician—so it is critical that you find a professional with whom you click. Look for a psychologist and, or, psychiatrist who "gets you." Also, many other counselors could be just as helpful—such as practitioners who hold degrees such as a Psy.D. or a master's in counseling, for example. This person won't necessarily strike you as a potential soul mate, but you should get a sense of genuine empathy on their part. People fit better with some clinicians than with others—and every practitioner is good for someone, but maybe not for you.

Here's a brief checklist of qualities to look for when seeking a counseling professional:

  • Do you feel that you have a good fit? Do you feel understood? This is known as a good therapeutic alliance, and studies indicate it may be the single most important factor in successful therapy.
  • Does the professional listen and genuinely understand your statements?
  • Does she help you find your irrational beliefs, and do you agree that they are indeed irrational for you?
  • Does he help you in giving up these beliefs? Does he help you genuinely dispute, in various and creative ways, the beliefs that hold you back? Most irrational beliefs are not immediately apparent to us—they stem from demands that we hold. We place some demands on ourselves, some on others, and some relate to the larger world. People who evaluate the world with these demands are prone to depression, even when they are on medication.

Psychiatrists and psychologists often work in tandem, and they work for you: If you find that their work does not significantly help within 10 sessions, then move on. However, if you find someone who helps you in the ways mentioned above, see her for a minimum of 30 sessions. Research has found that changing the way you think can change your chemistry—just as changing your chemistry can change the way you think. You can enjoy a more fulfilling and passionate existence, as well as better relationships, when you feel a purposeful mastery of yourself and acceptance of your circumstances.

To find a psychologist, psychiatrist and more in your area, visit Psychology Today's Therapy Directory and type in your zip code.