Published on July 3rd, 2013 | by Kristen Kansiewicz

How to Find the Right Mental Health Care Professional


If you are starting the process of seeking help for mental or emotional health, you may find that you need even MORE help when you see so many different acronyms and degrees after professional names. When even the options are confusing, how do you find the right mental health care professional to help you?

You may feel confused or overwhelmed, not knowing what type of help you actually need, so how do you begin? Too often people who are feeling depressed, anxious, or grief-stricken set out to “get help” but become too stressed by the process to continue. Sadly, they go without help because finding the right type of help was too stressful a task.

Take heart! The right emotional or mental health help is out there, and hopefully this article can point you in the right direction.

Types of mental health professionals

In the United States, it is important to know that every state has their own types of licensed mental health care professionals. In Massachusetts where I practice, we have Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs). Other states have other versions of these, such as Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs). Most states have Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSWs). Regardless of the letters at the end of the name, ALL of these professionals have a Master’s degree in a counseling-related field and will offer 50-minute counseling sessions that your health insurance will most likely cover. None of these providers can prescribe any medication, but they can diagnose a wide variety of mental health problems and will offer help with coping skills, self care, and exploration of the issues you face.

What is the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist?

Another type of professional mental health worker is a Licensed Psychologist, and this person would have earned a PhD in a psychology field or a Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD). This person may see clients in a private practice or clinic setting. Often, a psychologist is someone who does psychological testing or works in a hospital setting and in this context will not see individual clients for more than one or two sessions. Ultimately, in a private practice or clinic setting, a Licensed Psychologist performs the same service as a Master’s level clinician (a 50-minute therapy session), but because of her or his doctoral degree is paid at a higher rate by insurance companies and could do psychological testing if you needed it. A Licensed Psychologist cannot prescribe medication.

If you are looking for medication treatment, there are typically two options: your primary care physician (PCP) or a psychiatrist (who also will be an M.D.). A psychiatrist is able to prescribe medication, which a psychologist cannot do. If you go to a clinic, you may see a psychiatric nurse rather than a psychiatrist, much like at a dentist’s office when you see the hygienist rather than the dentist.

How do you know if you need a psychiatrist?

So where should you start?  Usually, it is best to start with your primary care physician, your PCP. If you are depressed, your doctor may be willing to prescribe a low dose of an antidepressant and monitor this for you. (BEWARE the doctor who writes you a prescription for an antidepressant with refills for a year and sends you on your way!). A good doctor will want to see you again in a month or so following the start of your medication. It is normal to start on a low dose and increase it gradually until you get to a level that works for you.

If your doctor does not feel comfortable prescribing an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, or if you need multiple medications in combination, he or she will likely give you a referral to a nearby psychiatrist. The psychiatrist will be an M.D. with a specialty in the types of medications that treat mental illnesses (psychtropic medications).  It is rare to find a psychiatrist who will do both counseling and medication management. More often, a psychiatrist will meet with you for 10-15 minutes to check your symptoms and dosage, just like your PCP would.

Treatment for mental illness

Nearly every research study done on effective treatment of mental health issues has shown that it is most effective to engage in BOTH counseling and medication. If you have clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar or other mood disorder, then you can see a licensed counselor or psychologist who will help you explore and problem-solve through your issues, in addition to a doctor who can prescribe and monitor medication. If you are just starting out and you are not sure if you need medication, see a counselor first. He or she can help assess whether or not you need to speak with a doctor.

If you are overwhelmed by the idea of finding the right counselor or mental health professional, ask a friend or loved one for support, encouragement, and help. Sometimes a friend can make phone calls for you to narrow down the list (by asking if the provider takes your insurance, for example). You can also ask friends who may have been in counseling before if they have recommendations of counselors to try. Or if you feel unable to enter into that process, just make an appointment with your primary care doctor. He or she can help set up services for you and perhaps streamline the process.

Getting help will start you on a journey toward healing, and it is likely you will begin to feel like yourself once again. Let today be the day you take your first step.

Image by Jesper Gunnarsson via Stock.Xchng

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