Ask The Doctor: First Visit to Psychiatrist

Carmen McIntyre
Dr. Carmen McIntyre

This week I was asked, “What should I expect during my first visit to a psychiatrist?”

A lot of people are anxious about going to see a psychiatrist and will often avoid it.  Part of this is because of the stigma, or shame, that sometimes is associated with mental illness. However, since an estimated one out of four adults will have a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, mental illness is actually one of the most common types of illness.  Therefore, quite a few people should be seeing a mental health professional at some point in their life.

A psychiatrist is a person who has completed medical school training, just as your family medicine doctor, pediatrician or cardiologist has done.  A psychiatrist then goes on to complete training specific to understand complex mental illnesses, the interaction of the brain and body, and the effects that the physical and social environment have on your emotional or psychological well-being.  The doctor may continue to study in a specialized field such as children, substance use disorders or forensics.

So when you meet with a psychiatrist for the first time, you’ll be asked questions and “examined” just as you would with any other doctor. The “examination” is typically composed of questions and may include questionnaires and paperwork. The doctor will start off by asking about symptoms you experience, and get further background on those symptoms, such as when they started, what makes them better or worse.  They will also ask about any past experiences with symptoms or treatment of mental illness.

The doctor will also ask questions about any other medical problems, and will want to know about which medications, including over the counter and “natural” remedies, you take.  They will ask about your family’s history of illnesses and response to medications too.  They will ask a few questions about social history including school, work and things you enjoy doing.

Sometimes these questions are embarrassing or annoying.  However, they are necessary to enable the doctor to accurately diagnose and treat you, as well as ensuring safety.  For example, they will ask about thoughts about hurting yourself or others, and use of alcohol or drugs.

At the end of the examination the doctor should discuss with you the diagnoses and treatment recommendations.  Know that you have a right to know about treatment options or alternatives, and you should participate in making the treatment plan. You and the doctor must treat each other with respect for therapy to be most effective.

To make your appointment with a psychiatrist easier, you might want to bring the following:

• A  list of symptoms, any changes in mood/sleep/activity, what helps vs. what makes things worse, and any questions you have. It’s easy to forget some of these things when you are with the doctor.

•  A list of your allergies and medications.  You can bring the bottles of meds if this is easier.

•  Medical records, if you think they will help.

•  Names and contact information for any other doctors/ healers you are seeing, as well as the name/address/phone number of your pharmacy.

Finally, feel free to bring a friend or family member with you.  They can help give information that you might forget or  hadn’t noticed, and they can help you remember the doctor’s recommendations as well. Seeing a psychiatrist for the first time can be scary, but it is often the first step to feeling better, and you are not alone.

Dr. Carmen McIntyre is the chief medical officer at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Author- ity. If you have a question for Dr. McIntyre, please submit it to 

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