Who Can Diagnose a Mental Illness?

In the past few years there has been a considerable amount of discussion in the media pertaining to who is capable of making a diagnosis of a mental illness. In the United States, only specific legally authorized professionals are permitted to make a diagnosis of mental illness.

General Definition of Mental Illness

In addition to some level of confusion over who can make a diagnosis of mental illness, there can also be some misunderstanding over what constitutes a mental illness. In fact, entire texts address the mechanics of mental illness. Understanding that reality, a general definition of mental illness can be helpful before diving into a discussion of who can make such a diagnosis.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has developed a simple, accurate, and understandable general definition of mental illness. Mental illness is a condition that impacts an individual’s thinking, feeling, or mood, according to NAMI. This type of condition has the capacity to affect a person’s ability to function on a daily basis and to relate and interact with other people. Every person with a mental illness will have different experiences associated with the condition, even if he or she has the same diagnosis as another person.

Professionals Who can Diagnosis a Mental Illness

In the United States, there is a trio of professionals legally capable of making a diagnosis of a mental illness. The professionals capable of making this type of diagnosis are psychologists, psychiatrists, and general practitioners.

A psychologist has a doctoral level degree in psychology. A psychologist studies and considers human behavior and mental processes through observation, interpretation, and recording how individuals relate to one another and the surrounding environment. Although a psychologist can diagnosis a mental illness, this type of professional cannot prescribe medication for patients.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor and as such can prescribe medications for patients. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness. Being a medical doctor, a psychiatrist has the ability to assess the mental and physical aspects of a mental health issue.

A general practitioner is a medical doctor that oftentimes serves as a primary care physician. As a general practitioner, or primary care physician, this type of medical doctor can diagnosis mental illness. With that said, a common practice in the United States is for a medical doctor, including a primary care physician or emergency room doctor, to make an initial diagnosis of a mental illness. Upon making such a finding, a general practitioner typically makes a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

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Those professionals able to make a diagnosis of mental illness typically follow a three stage approach in reach such a determination. First, a professional gathers information. The gathering of information primarily involves talking with a patient. Second, a mental health professional narrows down possible diagnoses based on a patient’s symptoms. Finally, a mental health professional forms what technically is known as diagnostic impressions, which represent the immediate segue to a diagnosis. A diagnosis may involve more than one mental illness or may be a dual diagnosis that includes substance abuse or addiction.