When you or a loved one suffers from bipolar disorder, you will inevitably deal with different types of professionals. These will be people whose job it is to support you and guide you in properly coping with bipolar disorder and helping you keep it under control. These definitions will help you understand what each type of support professional is and what they do.


A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor who has spent extra time studying psychiatry. These specialized doctors usually study additional courses in psychology in order to aid them in evaluating and diagnosing mental illnesses. A psychiatrist is an M.D. and can prescribe medications and treatments such as ECT.

Usually a psychiatrist will prescribe appropriate medications for controlling conditions such as bipolar disorder, and then suggest counseling with a licensed therapist as an adjunct to the medical treatment.

A psychiatrist will evaluate patient by doing a variety of medical tests, including thyroid function, blood tests, CT scans, and a range of psychiatric tests. They will also interview a patient and, in many cases, family members, in order to get a clear picture of the actions and personality of the patient.

A psychiatrist can also hospitalize someone who is bipolar if they need more drastic medical treatment such as electro-convulsive shock therapy (ECT) or carefully monitored adjustment of their medications for a short period of time.

A psychiatrist is essential for the determining the appropriate prescription medications needed to control bipolar disorder. Appointments with a trusted psychiatrist should be scheduled on a regular basis in order to monitor medications and maintain proper levels in the blood stream. The psychiatrist will also ask questions at each visit to make sure the medications are still working properly and aren't causing an adverse reaction.


A psychologist has studied for years and has a PhD, or Doctorate, in psychology. They can also, like a psychiatrist, evaluate mental illness and suggest a course of treatment. They can not, however, prescribe medications. A psychologist is, however, extremely knowledgeable about how psychiatric medications work and will work closely with the medical doctor or psychiatrist to coordinate treatment for the bipolar patient.

The psychologist will begin with patient interviews and family member interviews as well, and will also do some testing. This testing will probably focus more on functional ability and coping skills than the psychiatrist's tests do. Neuropsychology, for example, will focus on finding the strengths and weaknesses of a person's coping strategies so that the psychologist can help them improve their coping skills within the framework of their bipolar disorder.

Psychologists offer the bipolar sufferer counseling to help them develop a better understanding of their illness. Individual therapy may include coping skills, ways to recognize the onset of an episode, better communication skills, and improved methods of self-control during episodes.

Psychologists are also invaluable for their support of family members through family counseling and support groups. The psychologist should keep in touch with the prescribing psychiatrist as much as possible, since the psychologist will generally have more interaction with the bipolar sufferer and will be able to alert the psychiatrist to any changes in a mood disorder that may indicate a need for a change in medications.

Social Worker or Counselor

Social workers are assigned to an individual if they have been diagnosed with bipolar or another mental illness or mood disorder and are either a) in the public school system b) in the state juvenile system (they have been in the foster system or have been in the juvenile system for a crime of some type), or c) a part of the social welfare system. Depending upon the state you live in, there may be other instances as well, but these are generally the most common.

A social worker is basically a coordinator who will match up a patient with a state mandated psychiatric service. In most cases, a social worker will have a Master's Degree (M.S.) in social work or a PhD and can conduct an initial diagnostic evaluation. The social worker, after referring the patient on to psychiatrist or psychologist they feel is appropriate, may also arrange for family counseling.

A social worker can provide family counseling and advise you on resources in your area for support groups, special needs information and other services that may be available for you through the social welfare system if it is appropriate to your situation.

Counselors are very similar to social workers, but are usually independent rather than a part of the state system. These mental health professionals are usually employed by non-profit or not-for-profit mental health organizations or charities that provide services for low cost or no cost to anyone who needs them.

Their level or training and experience will vary, but most counselors have at least a Master's Degree (M.S.) and, like social workers, will often be coordinators to move patients along to the appropriate doctor and guide family members with advice and resources. Some counselors are primarily talk therapists who focus on helping you with your feelings and emotions, while others will educate you on coping skills and ways to improve your lifestyle as a bipolar sufferer.

Hospital Team - In Patient

If you or your loved one is hospitalized during a severe episode, there will be a team of doctors, nurses, psychiatric aides and social workers who will work with you during your days in the hospital. This is standard operating procedure for commitment to the psychiatric wing of any hospital, and is used to best achieve the goal for every in-patient admittance - stabilization of symptoms. After release, if a return for a period of a day or two is needed somewhere down the line in order to 'tweak' things a bit, this is easily arranged.

The doctors (usually psychiatrists) will evaluate the situation and prescribe an appropriate adjustment in medications, which the nurses will administer and monitor closely. The psychiatric aides and social worker will all monitor changes and discuss the situation with the patient and arrange for contact with the patient's own psychologist and/or counselor in order to guarantee proper follow-up after release.

Hospital Team - Out Patient

If you or your loved uses an out patient program for a week or two, the same type of hospital team will be used as for an in patient program, although probably on a smaller scale. These services are meant to provide a way to stabilize patients and give some chance to regulate medications and give in depth evaluations and monitoring when needed without having to hospitalize bipolar sufferers completely.

After each day at the hospital, they may go home for the evening and sleep at home in the comfort of their own beds, which can lend a sense of security and comfort. If they find it necessary, however, they can periodically check into the hospital overnight for a 'tune up,' or if they feel that they may need some additional support.

Each kind of support professional offers a different type of service, and all of them can be essential to the mental and physical health and well-being of the bipolar sufferer and their loved ones. Understanding the real role of each of them will, hopefully, make working with each of them a bit easier.