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Should a Doctor or Therapist Treat a Mood Disorder?

mood disorder is a mental health condition that disrupts mood, leading to inconsistent feelings about, and reactions toward, existing circumstances. Mood disorders may involve feeling sad often or all the time; losing interest in important parts of life; experiencing overwhelming anxiousness about certain events or situations; or fluctuations between happiness or sadness.
There are several mood disorders, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Seasonal affective disorder

The above mood disorders are broad categories, with several subsets of specific types, which have similar symptoms but are not exactly the same. Different mood disorders require different types of treatment, and treatment may change as the condition changes. However, most mood disorders respond best to a combination of medication and therapy.

There are the different approaches that doctors or physicians use with mood disorders compared to therapists, counselors, or psychologists.

Doctors and Mood Disorder Treatment

What Doctors Do

Physicians or doctors are often the first line of treatment for mood disorders. During regular doctors’ visits, a person may speak with their physician about emotional changes or physical symptoms related to a mood disorder. People who struggle with mood disorders like bipolar disorder may not know they have the condition until their first manic episode, which often leads to hospitalization. A suicide attempt or drug overdose related to an underlying mood disorder may lead to diagnosis and treatment in a hospital.

How Doctors Treat Mood Disorders

Doctors play a very important role in treating mood disorders. Typically, a physician will prescribe medication to treat the condition and monitor their patient for side effects or signs of substance abuse.

Medications prescribedto treat mood disorders include:

  • Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, or MAO inhibitors
  • Anti-anxiety medications, most often short-term prescriptions for benzodiazepines
  • Some anticonvulsant medications like carbamazepine or lamotrigine, which can treat mood fluctuations
  • Lithium for bipolar disorder


Therapists and Mood Disorder Treatment

What Therapists Do

Working with a therapist involves talk therapy. Individual therapy is just the therapist and the client; group therapy involves the therapist or counselor overseeing a group discussion among multiple clients; and family therapy is the client and their family in dialogue, guided by the therapist. There are several approaches to these types of talk therapy, which may be beneficial for different conditions and different people.

How Therapists Treat Mood Disorders

Psychiatrists may offer some talk therapy, but their primary goal is to diagnose and treat mental health issues with prescription medication. A talk therapist, or psychotherapist, cannot prescribe medications, but they do offer valuable tools for their clients. Although medications ease or relieve symptoms, therapy focuses on long-term solutions, changes to behavior and outlook, and addressing specific issues that may trigger a relapse of the mood disorder. Unlike medication, psychotherapy is becoming more widely available to people who may not have in-person access to a therapist, counselor, or psychologist, thanks to phone access and the Internet.

The goals of psychotherapy are to:

  • Help the person become aware of their reactions to emotions
  • Work through new approaches to these thoughts (e.g., A person with depression may have low self-esteem, and the therapist will help them evaluate their skills differently.)
  • Identify current ways the person manages stress and develop more productive ways to handle stressful situations
  • Examine social interactions (e.g., how the person perceives these interactions and what can make them smoother)
  • Track emotions
  • Learn mindfulness or calming techniques
  • Use exposure therapy (best with anxiety disorders, especially phobias)
  • Create a safety plan in case dangerous thoughts, such as regarding death or suicide, emerge

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How Both Types of Professionals Can Help

For the majority of people struggling with a mood disorder, medication helps to stabilize mood so the individual is able to go to therapy and work through issues related to their condition. Medication and talk therapy in combination work best for most people; some may function better with less therapy and more medication, and vice versa. In fact, some people may prefer therapy without medication; however, if a person is prescribed mood-regulating medication, they should work with a therapist because medication alone is not a successful long-term treatment for mood disorders.