Choosing the right doctor and/or therapist for your mental health needs can seem like a daunting task. Determining the type of doctor who is appropriate for your specific needs is a very important step toward getting the right treatment.

Here are some reasons people may have for seeking mental health assistance, the types of professionals to choose from, and how to go about finding the right person.

Why seek mental health treatment?

If you or a loved one are having the following symptoms, you may want to seek the advice of a mental health professional:

  • Sadness that lasts more than a week
  • Frequent feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or suicide
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Racing thoughts
  • Compulsive behaviors that interfere with your daily functioning
  • Increased or excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  • Changes in appetite and/or eating habits that cause significant changes in weight
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Grief
  • Difficulty adjusting to major life changes (loss of job, separation/divorce, health problems)
  • Just not feeling like yourself

Mental health professionals

There are several types of mental health professionals who are specially trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, eating disorders, alcohol and drug disorders, and relationship problems:

  • Primary care physician (MD or DO): Primary care physicians are often the first contact for mental health care. Your primary care physician can help evaluate whether there are underlying physical causes for your symptoms, prescribe medication if appropriate, and/or refer you to a mental health professional.
  • Psychiatrist (MD or DO): A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and/or behavioral problems. Some psychiatrists offer “talk therapy” and medication, while others prescribe and adjust medications only.
  • Psychologist (PhD, PsyD): A psychologist is a professional with advanced training to assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and/or behavioral problems through various forms of talk therapy including, but not limited to: cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy; solution-focused therapy; supportive therapy, and; marital and family therapy. Psychologists do not prescribe medications, but they can refer you to a psychiatrist or family physician for a medication evaluation, if necessary.
  • Social worker/counselor/therapist (LISW, MSW, MA, MS, MFT, LPC, LPPC): Social workers and counselors have specialized training in the treatment of mental health disorders. Some providers have specific experience working with families or with patients who have alcohol and drug problems.

How do I find the right therapist?

There are several sources for finding a mental health provider to meet your needs, including:

  • Family physician
  • Trusted friends, family, or clergy
  • Employee Assistance Program
  • Health insurance company
  • Referral service from a national or state professional organization
  • Local or national medical society or mental health organization
  • Online/phone book (under categories such as “social service organizations” and “counselors,” among others)
  • Local hospital or community mental health centers

Before scheduling your first appointment, think about what you would like to know about your potential therapist, such as his or her:

  • Education, licensure, and years in practice
  • Fees, lengths of sessions, insurance coverage, and office hours
  • Specific treatment approach and philosophy
  • Specialization by age group or particular disorder

Don’t be shy about asking questions. Getting the “right fit” is very important for treatment to be successful. And remember that treatment can help you get back to feeling like yourself.

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