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How to Choose a Mental Health Provider

Updated on December 24, 2014

You know you need help, but who do you need?

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

The problems of life have become overwhelming and you have decided to get some help, but where? There are a lot of different kinds of mental health providers. How do you know which one is best for you? How do you find a good one? The whole process can be very confusing adding a new stressor to an already stressful situation, but it doesn’t have to be confusing or stressful. You can confidently choose a provider and start getting help with a basic understanding of mental health providers.

It is good to first understand the different types of providers available. Different mental health professionals have different training, approaches, and abilities. Psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers, and marriage and family therapists all provide mental health services, but they do so from different perspectives and regulations govern what types of services they can provide.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training in the how the mind functions. As they are doctors, they are able to provide prescriptions for medications. They are additionally trained in performing psychotherapy— conversations designed to correct mental illness. There are few psychiatrists who provide psychotherapy as other professionals can provide this service at a lower rate. Most persons seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis are taking psychotropic medications – medications designed to treat mental illness.

Psychologists often have doctorate degrees. They too have been trained to provide psychotherapy. Psychologists are not medical doctors and in most states are not permitted to prescribe psychotropic medications. In a limited number of states, some psychologists are licensed as “prescribing psychologists” and are permitted to prescribe medications. Psychologists are most frequently used when testing is needed to assist in determining a course of action. For example, if a student is struggling in school, a psychologist would be able to test and determine if the student had learning disability. Psychologists are also used in criminal investigations where defendant may not be capable of assisting in his own defense. If an entity, such as the Department of Social Services, requires a psychological evaluation, you will need to see a psychologist.

Licensed counselors have a minimum of a master’s degree and must pass a test before being licensed. On the job training is typically a part of both their master’s degree and their post-master’s training. Counselors specialize in providing psychotherapy. Although most counselors perform psychotherapy through focused and specialized conversations, other use art, music, or recreation to assist clients. In some states counselors are permitted to perform limited testing. Counselors are not permitted to prescribe medications.

Licensed social workers often perform the same functions as counselors; however they do so from a different perspective. Like counselors, social workers have a minimum of a master’s degree and must pass a test before being licensed. On the job training is also required. Social workers often focus more on the logistics surrounding the healing process. Social workers often work in hospitals and government agencies as they can assist with handling red tape and arranging for additional services.

Marriage and family therapists can be thought of as counselors with a specialization in family theories. There are many different theories as to how mental health problems can be healed. Some of those theories focus on the family unit instead of the individual. Marriage and family therapists are specially trained in these theories. Although all of the before mentioned professionals are trained and permitted to provide marriage and family therapy, marriage and family therapists are often the experts. They also provide individual therapy, but do so using a family based theory. For example, an individual having problems at work may benefit from a marriage and family therapist if the source of the work problems is strongly-held, contradictory values established in childhood.

All of the before mentioned professionals are overseen at the state level. Different states have different requirements for each type of professional. In addition, many of the professionals above are also a part of national organizations which require vigorous background checks, testing, and continuing education.



Cost and Scheduling could make a big different in the success of treatment.

Source: OOTW
Source: OOTW
Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Once you decide the type of professional or professionals you will need, it is important to figure out how to pay for the services. For most people that means a call to your insurance company. Often insurance companies have a separate number on the back of the insurance care for “behavioral health”. When you call ask for a list of providers in your area and for information about your coverage and any co-pays. You may also find this information online.

Many professional accept fee-for-service or cash clients. If you do not have behavioral health benefits or simply do not want your insurance company to be involved, you can pay your provider directly. Many providers, but not all, have a sliding-scale which bases the rate they charge on your income level. Do not be surprised if you are asked to provide a paycheck stub if you are receiving a reduced rate.

You have now narrowed your list of providers down significantly. It is time to look at specific providers and what they offer. Often the majority of this research can be done online, but if the provider does not have an informative website, a call to the office should suffice. You will want to know the answers to questions about availability, payments, experience, and approach.

Questions about Availability: Is the provider accepting new clients? Do they really accept your insurance? Does the individual work with your age group? What hours are available?

Questions about Payments: What fees are involved? Does the provider accept checks, cash, or credit cards? Is there a fee for missed appointments?

Questions about Experience: Does the provider have experience working with people who have similar problems? How long have they been in the field? Have they written any publications?

Questions about Approach: Does the provider offer the type of treatment you are seeking? How long are sessions? Who will be expected to attend? Is the professional directive or more supportive? Does the provider require patients participate in a particular program or work with another specific provider as an adjunct?

Most mental health providers are wonderful, hard-working, and ethical professionals. A small minority are not. Fortunately, it is possible to find out if someone has had a problem being ethical by contacting the state board governing the provider’s license. In some states clients can find ethics violations, suspensions, and the like online.

Knowing what you are looking for and what questions to ask takes the guesswork out of finding the right person. After doing a little homework, you can enter into services less focused on the provider and more focused on your own need for healing.


Who would you turn to first if you were struggling with a mental health problem?

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Meet Cyndy

Cyndy Adeniyi has been working in social services and mental health settings since 1999. She believes in the great potential of today's youth, families, and entire communities and fights to see that great potential blossom. She is the founder of Out of the Woods, which provides faith-based life coaching, publications, and workshops.

© 2014 Cyndy Adeniyi

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    • Life Coach Cyndy profile image
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      Cyndy Adeniyi 3 years ago from Georgia

      Thanks for contribution. You have alerted me to something I really did not realize. In my part of the county local health departments no longer provide mental health services. I guess I assumed that was the case nationwide. Such services were privatized over a decade ago. The one remaining service available is long-term hospitalization and the long waiting lists are causing some to ponder if privatizing this service is possible. Low income families families here are encouraged to become part of the state supported insurance programs which are widely accepted by providers. Grants are also available for those who are not insured; however, I have not heard how this may be affected by the Affordable Care Act. If almost everyone has insurance, I imagine the grant money will soon be gone.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I would add one more to your list of who to turn to when you are having mental health problems, and that is your general physician. Doing so allows them to rule out any physical maladies that might be mimicking mental health symptoms. Hormonal issues, thyroid problems, chronic pain problems, and many others can make a person feel depressed or anxious. For me, it was my thyroid and hormones. Once these were under control, then I was referred to a psychologist for assistance. Starting with someone you trust with your health allows you to express your concerns, and then have them direct you to someone who could help. For those with low income, they may want to consider contacting their local Human Services center, as they provide mental health services on a sliding fee scale as well.