How to choose a mental health professional

May 2, 2017 Allison Milionis

If you’re considering seeking help from a mental health provider but you aren’t sure who to go to or what questions to ask, read on. We’ve compiled a short list of facts and tips to help you find the right match for you. Our professionals, Tamara Sheehan, MHA, BSN, RN, NEA-BC, director of Behavioral Health, Providence Health Care in Spokane, Wash., and Kate Morris, MA, LMHC, supervisor of Family Therapy, Providence Health Care, also in Spokane, provided expert input.

What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist?

Good question. They may appear to be similar, when in fact the two professions differ in training and expertise.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathic medicine who specializes in mental health. This doctor can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental health disorders
  • Prescribe medication
  • Provide psychological counseling (psychotherapy)

A psychologist holds a doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D.) and is trained in the science of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. A psychologist:

  • Can diagnose and treat mental illness disorders
  • Can provide individual or group counseling
  • Cannot prescribe medication but may work with another provider who can prescribe medication if needed.

Some registered nurses and nurse practitioners provide mental health counseling, as well. A psychiatric-mental health nurse (PMHN) and psychiatric-mental health advanced practice registered nurse (PMH-APRN) have at least a master’s degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing.

Can licensed counselors prescribe medication?

Most licensed professional counselors (LPC) have clinical experience and an advanced degree. They are not licensed to prescribe medication, but they can provide diagnosis and psychological counseling for a range of issues.

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) have training and experience specifically in mental health. An LCSW is not licensed to prescribe medication but can provide assessment, psychological counseling and other services that depend on their specific licensing and training.

The right match for you

Whatever type of mental health provider you consider, be sure that she or he is licensed in your state and is trained to provide the type of help you need. For example, some providers can help with depression, others specialize in substance abuse, family or marriage (couples) therapy. If you have an eating disorder, you may want to seek counseling from a licensed professional who specializes in that area.

You may need medications, counseling, or both. This will determine if you see one or more providers. For example, you may need to see a psychiatrist to manage medications and a psychologist or counselor to help with other mental health issues.

Look at years of experience, treatment approach and philosophy, as well as practical information, such as length of sessions, fees and office hours.

Ask lots of questions before you make your decision. Finding the right match is important to establishing a good relationship – and getting the most out of your treatment.

Check your health insurance coverage

Your health plan may cover certain types of mental health providers. Check with your insurance company, Medicare or Medicaid before you begin your search. They may have a list of in-network mental health providers covered by your plan.

Where do you find a mental health provider?

Your health plan may have a list of in-network providers, or ask a friend, family member or clergy. You can also ask your health care provider for a referral.

The employee assistance program or student health center at your place or work or at your school may offer mental health services or referrals.

You can find a Providence licensed mental health professional in your region, or by calling or emailing a local or national mental health organization, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or professional associations, such as the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association or Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Your mental health is as important as your physical health. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out for help. With treatment from a licensed professional, you can get the help you need for your particular situation.

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