How to find the right mental health professional
By Lucy Maher
Each year, 43.8 million Americans experience a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And many of them struggle to find help, with 60 percent of adults not receiving mental health services in the previous year.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Whether you are suffering from depression, anxiety, or stress that’s negatively impacting your day-to-day, figuring out how to get help can be confusing.
Good places to start? Your primary care physician, or your insurance company, says Brian J. Distelberg, Ph.D., director of research for Loma Linda University Health's Behavioral Medicine Center.
“There is no wrong first step when seeking mental health support,” he says. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one-fifth of all primary care visits address mental health concerns, but primary care physicians may not have the time during a visit to adequately treat concerns. A primary care physician can offer common mental health screenings and provide a referral to a mental health-focused provider who can spend dedicated time on treating the mental health condition.”
If your plan allows it, “you can also call your insurance provider and they can give you a referral to a behavioral health professional in your network,” he says. “In this case it is helpful to determine whether you need an evaluation for services, or whether you know you want standard therapy services, such as seeing a therapist for depression or anxiety.”
Once you identify your condition, now it’s time to hone in on the services you should seek.
Providers who treat mental health include psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers, and licensed professional counselors, and they treat mental illness differently.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication to help treat a mental illness like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and addiction. They help with illnesses that are complex or don’t respond to other treatments. They can also refer patients to other mental health professionals or admit patients to a hospital if necessary.
Psychologists, while providing therapy, “can be more focused on using psychological testing and assessments such as cognitive testing for Individualized Educational Planning for children and youth to arrive at a diagnosis and create a pathway for healing,” says Dania March, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in Oakland, California. “Psychologists have either PhDs, Psy.Ds or Ed Ds; have completed internships and have passed a licensure exam,” she says. “The frame of reference of a psychologist may be angled toward behavioral issues.”
Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) have master’s degrees and are trained in working with the larger cultural context of the client in mind, says March. Looking at how the societal, religious, familial, and environmental factors contribute to a patient's wellbeing, they help their clients heal from larger systemic issues as well as personal issues. LCSWs have completed 3,200 hours of internship and have passed two licensing exams.
“The main thing to keep in mind is this,” March says. “See a psychologist for testing and more directed treatment. See an LCSW if you want to explore your mental health with a holistic perspective and deepen your understanding of yourself and how you operate in context of your environment and relationships.”
It can be difficult for someone new to the mental health landscape to figure out exactly who to see.
“Many therapists specialize in certain areas and typically stick to these areas of treatment,” Dr. Distelberg says. “For example, a psychologist will typically specialize in individual issues such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, a few examples but not the entire range, whereas a marriage and family therapist typically focuses on family, or relationship issues.”
Other things to consider include cost, location, and finally, connection.
Dr. Distelberg calls this the “therapeutic alliance” and says “this means you have to one, like them or feel comfortable with the therapist and two, feel like the therapist understands you and your unique needs, or at least is interested in learning about your unique needs and the ways you can grow.”
March says this is a crucial area to get right. “I refer to this as the client and I are 'sniffing each other out'—like animals, we're determining the initial feelings of welcoming, safety, connection,” she says.
Finally, “keep in mind that mental health is a partnership between you and the provider you choose,” Dr. Distelberg says. “It’s okay to meet a provider and then decide to look for a different provider because you don’t feel like the first provider is a great partner for you in this critical time of your life.”
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