Social Worker, Psychologist or Psychiatrist: Which One is Right For You?

It makes me happy to see that the topic of mental health related to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is being talked about much more openly. I believe while gastroenterologists aren’t therapists themselves, more are aware of the psychological toll Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis can have on a person. I find whenever I go in for an appointment, I am always asked questions about my mental health. For ex, over the past two weeks, have I felt anxious and/or depressed?

A question I see pop up a lot is whether someone should see a social worker, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. All three are mental health professionals, but they are a bit different.

Let’s break it down a bit…

What is a social worker?

A social worker is someone who has their masters degree in social work. Many have their bachelors degree in psychology or sociology but go on to complete a masters program to learn how to help actual patients. You will find the letters “LCSW” next to someones names which stands for licensed clinical social worker. These individuals are not considered “doctors.”

What is a psychologist?

A psychologist is someone who has completed their doctorate in the field of psychology. Some psychologists go on to treat patients while others use their degree to help them achieve greater success in another area. For example, a researcher who studies the effects of life with a chronic illness on patients/loved ones. These people may write books, articles on the internet, work together with other physicians at a hospital, the list goes on. A psychologist has a “PhD” and is addressed as Dr. so and so. It is important to understand that a psychologist is not a medical doctor nor can they prescribe medication.

What is a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is someone who has completed medical school but has chosen to focus on psychiatry. They are no different than a gastroenterologist aside from the fact that a GI has a specific focus on gastrointestinal related diseases or issues. Psychiatrists are considered medical doctors and will have “M.D” next to their name. Prescribing psychiatric medication is often one of the main things psychiatrists do for patients. Others work to collaborate with other physicians for research purposes.

So, which one is right for you?

In my opinion, there is no right or wrong way to go in terms of deciding on a psychologist or social worker for therapy. Sure, a PhD has more schooling and might be more advanced in certain areas but at the end of the day, credentials don’t make someone a good therapist. It is about who you connect with the best, who you feel has the ability to understand and hopefully help you cope with whatever it is you are going through. When it comes to a doctor handling my physical problems, I have always looked to those who have the most experience because my body is so complex. I know as IBD patients, you can relate to that. However, when it comes to talking through things and having a true connection with a therapist, I have found there to be little difference between a social worker and a psychologist. So, it would be my recommendation to throw out the labels and decide who you like better.

If you feel like you may need medication in addition to therapy, there is no real option other than to see a psychiatrist. Oftentimes, once a person is stable on a medication regimen, an internist can continue prescribing but it all starts with seeing a psychiatrist. These doctors specialize in psychiatric medications AND have the medical knowledge to hopefully understand your body a little better. While there still are probably some out there, I have found it difficult to find a psychiatrist who also does talk therapy and who takes insurance.

While it is important to understand the difference between a social worker, psychologist and psychiatrist, at the end of the day it is about YOU. Who do you click with? Who do you feel like you can be vulnerable with? Who has the personality that makes you feel good about being in their presence?

Something interesting to be aware of is…

A psychologist dealing with chronic illness patients can sometimes bill insurance under the name of the physical condition. A lot of times this makes people feel better because they are not being “labeled” with any kind of mental illness. I hope you know that not only is there nothing to be ashamed about if you do seek counseling because of a mental illness but HIPAA makes it impossible for anyone other than those directly involved in your care (doctor and insurance company, if applicable) to gain access to your records. I do understand that even with that knowledge, some people still would prefer to seek counseling under the name of “Inflammatory Bowel Disease” as opposed to “depression.” If that is the case, a social worker wouldn’t be an option for you.

What have your experiences been with therapists? If you are in therapy, do you see a social worker, psychologist, and/or a psychiatrist? Have you found there to be distinct differences? If so, what have they been?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The InflammatoryBowelDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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