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When to seek a referral for a mental health specialist

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Doctor examines patient
Dr. Martha Perez examines Maria Lebron in a room at the Community Health of South Florida, Doris Ison Health Center in February 2013 in Miami.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images 2013

You can start the conversation about mental health with your primary care physician, but when is it time for you or your doctor to take the next step and book an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist?

"If it's some form of anxiety or some form of depression, we can get started with that. We might simultaneously recommend that they talk to a therapist or psychologist of some kind," Dr. Jon Hallberg, medical director of the  University of Minnesota Physicians Mill City Clinic, told MPR News host Tom Crann.

But primary care doctors typically also screen for more urgent symptoms with questionnaires called the PHQ-9 and GAD-7. If patients receive a high score — with points adding up for an inability to sleep and thoughts of suicide, for example — primary care doctors are likely to refer them to a specialist. 

"When I'm treating someone with a heart condition, or a kidney condition, or they've got a really bad joint, patients and providers don't even hesitate to send that person to a cardiologist, a nephrologist, an orthopedic surgeon," Hallberg said. "So, I liken that to mental health conditions. If I've got someone with a severe form of depression, they're on a couple different kinds of medications, they've talked to someone, they're not getting better, that absolutely is a time to refer to a psychiatrist, who I really consider a specialist in mental health."

To hear more of Dr. Jon Hallberg's conversation with Tom Crann, click play on the audio player above.

This interview is part of "Call to Mind," MPR's initiative to foster new conversations around mental health.