You’ve been struggling with what to do for a patient who has a significant mental health problem and really would love to have some help. You’re willing to fill out the requisite referral forms and wait your turn for what seems like an excruciating amount of time. But how do you ensure that you, your patient, and the family get the most out of the consultative experience so that everyone’s questions are answered and ongoing care, if needed, can continue?
To be fair, most of the burden of doing a good psychiatric or mental health consultation rests on the consultant, not the person making the request. It is their job to do a thorough evaluation and to identify any additional pieces of information that may be missing before a strong conclusion can be made. That said, however, this is the real world where everyone is busy and few have the time to track down every loose end that may exist regarding a patient’s history.
To that end, here are some recommendations for how to increase the chance that the outcome of your consultation with a child psychiatrist or other mental health professional will be maximally helpful for everyone involved. These tips are based on having been on the receiving end of psychiatric consultations for almost 2 decades and having worked closely with primary care clinicians in a number of different capacities.
The first question to ask yourself, and this may be the most important one of all, is whether or not you really need an actual psychiatrist at all at this stage versus another type of mental health professional. Physicians often are most comfortable dealing with other physicians. If a pediatrician has a question about a patient’s heart, it’s logical to consult a cardiologist. Thus if there’s a question about mental health, the knee-jerk reaction is to consult a psychiatrist. While understandable, looking first to a psychiatrist to help with a patient’s mental health struggles often is not the best move. Psychiatrists make up only one small part of all mental health professionals that also include psychologists, counselors, and clinical social workers, among others. The availability of child and adolescent psychiatrists can been exceedingly sparse while other types of mental health professionals generally are much more available. Moreover, these other types of mental health professionals also can do a great job at assessment and treatment. It is true that most can’t prescribe medication, but best practice recommendations for most of the common mental health diagnoses in youth (anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.) explicitly outline that nonpharmacologic treatments should be used first. It breaks my heart every time I do a consult for a family who has waited 6 months only to have me recommend a good therapist they could have seen right off in a week.
Get to know the mental health resources of your community beyond the small number of psychiatrists who might be there. And if you aren’t sure whether or not a referral might best go first to a mental health professional who is not a psychiatrist, just ask. That quick phone call or email might save the family a needless delay in treatment and a lot of aggravation for you.
If you are confident that it is a child & adolescent psychiatrist you want your patient to see, here are some things that will help you get the most out of that consultation and help you avoid the disappointment (for both you and the family) of an evaluation that completely misses the mark.