What to expect for your first visit with your psychiatrist

By David Goldsmith, M.D., & Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D. Follow @VahabzadehMD
Resident Psychiatrists, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine

Your Psychiatrist’s Training
A psychiatrist is a physician who is specially trained to diagnose and treat people who are experiencing a wide range of issues, from emotional distress to more severe mental health concerns. People may make their first appointment to visit a psychiatrist when they are having difficulties at work, in relationships, or even as a result of medical conditions. These patients could be experiencing many different symptoms including sadness, lack of energy, anxiety, or mood swings. Other symptoms could include problems with sleep, memory, or appetite. In some circumstances, the symptoms may be much more severe and include hallucinations or suicidal thoughts.
Following medical school, a psychiatrist must undergo at least four years of residency training. He/she will spend that time seeing a wide variety of patients with different psychiatric and medical issues. Some psychiatrists may have additional expertise like treating children or people suffering from drug addiction.
Psychiatrists learn to understand and diagnose complex mental illnesses, includingschizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. As such, psychiatrists are trained to realize that talking about some issues is quite difficult, so they know how to work with patients who can become very emotional or anxious.
Your First Appointment
The first appointment with a psychiatrist is often an initial evaluation, or intake visit, when the psychiatrist will want to get to know you and what difficulties you are experiencing. These appointments may vary in length but are typically between 40-90 minutes. Your psychiatrist will ask you what kind of issues are concerning you, and how are they affecting your life?
You will be asked about a range of symptoms, and how you have tried to cope with them. Your psychiatrist will want to know about any medical conditions you have now or had in the past. He or she will want to know about past visits with mental health professionals. Many medical and psychiatric conditions may run in families, and usually the psychiatrist will ask you about your family’s health history. They will also ask you about your current medications, both for medical and psychiatric conditions.
Once your psychiatrist has asked you these questions, he or she will make a plan with you and may recommend that you see a particular specialist or have some laboratory tests. Your psychiatrist may suggest a style of talk therapy (psychotherapy) or in some instances, suggest a medication to help with your symptoms.
Your doctor will likely schedule another appointment, so that you can discuss how the treatment plan is going and whether your symptoms have improved. It is very important to ask questions about anything you may not understand, or why you are being prescribed a certain medication or type of therapy. Your psychiatrist will be more than happy to answer your questions and explain things to you in more detail.
Tips for Your First Visit
  • Write down a list of symptoms that you have been having if you feel you may forget to mention them.
  • Bring along any medical or mental health records that you believe are important.
  • It may help to bring a list of your medications.
  • You can ask a friend or family member to come to your appointment if you feel that they can provide a unique perspective and make you feel less anxious.
  • Always feel free to ask questions about the diagnosis and about any treatments offered.

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