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updated April 09, 2009

Mental health providers: Find one to suit your needs

  • Choosing mental health providers can be challenging. Try to match your needs with their experience and specialty. Here's what to consider — and which questions to ask.
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( If you've never seen a mental health provider before, you may not know how to find one who suits your specific needs. Here are some issues and tips to think about, along with questions to ask potential mental health providers.

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Consider the types of mental health providers

You may not realize just how many types of mental health providers are available until you start looking for one. Should you see a family practice doctor? A psychiatrist? Psychologist? Social worker?

Most mental health providers have either master's degree-level or doctoral-level training. There are a number of titles for master's degree-level mental health professionals. Licensed professional counselor (LPC) and master of social work (MSW) are common examples. Mental health providers who have doctoral-level training include psychologists and medical doctors who specialize in mental health (psychiatrists). Family medicine doctors also can diagnose mental health conditions and prescribe medications.

Keep these factors in mind when choosing among the various types of mental health providers:

  • Your concern or condition. While most mental health providers can provide treatment for a range of conditions, a mental health provider with a specialized focus may be more suited to your needs. For example, if you have an eating disorder, you may need to see a psychologist who specializes in that area. On the other hand, if you're dealing with teenage conflicts, you may want to consult a marriage and family therapist. You may need to see more than one mental health provider to meet your needs.
  • Whether you need medications. Only certain mental health providers can prescribe medications. Your family doctor can diagnose and prescribe medications for mental health issues. However, depending on your concern and the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may recommend consulting a psychiatrist — a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing mental health conditions and managing mental health medications. Other types of mental health providers generally can't prescribe medications.
  • The severity of your condition. In general, the more severe your symptoms or complex your diagnosis, the more expertise and training you need to look for in a mental health provider. Medications prescribed by your family doctor, seeing a counselor or a combination of the two may be enough. However, mental health issues that are more serious — schizophrenia or severe depression, for example — may require seeing a psychiatrist, a psychologist or both.
  • Your health insurance coverage. Insurance policies vary widely on coverage of mental health providers. Check your coverage beforehand. Your insurance policy may have a list of specific mental health providers covered, or may only cover certain types of mental health providers. Your insurance company or Medicare or Medicaid can tell you what types of mental health providers it provides coverage for and what your benefit limits are. Some insurance plans, for instance, authorize more visits to a nurse, social worker or psychologist than to a psychiatrist, whose fees are usually higher.
Do some legwork to find mental health providers

Finding the right mental health providers takes some legwork. Here are some ways to find mental health providers:

  • Ask your health insurance company for a list of covered providers. This list may also be available on the Internet.
  • Seek a referral or recommendation from your other health care providers, such as a family doctor or pediatrician.
  • Ask trusted friends, family or clergy.
  • Check phone book listings under such categories as community service numbers, counselors, physicians, psychologists or social services organizations.
  • Search nonprofit, government or mental health organization websites that provide listings of providers in your area.
  • Ask your company's employee assistance program (EAP) for a referral.
  • Contact a local or national mental health organization or medical society.
Research the characteristics of mental health providers

Your legwork doesn't stop once you have some potential mental health providers in mind. Before scheduling your first appointment, consider your preferences regarding whom you would be most comfortable talking to. Some factors include:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Cultural background

Don't feel bad about ruling out some mental health providers based on these criteria. Your comfort level is important because you may be establishing a long-term relationship. Even tone of voice or appearance may matter to you. Although you usually won't know how mental health providers look ahead of time, some clinics, organizations or associations post pictures and biographies online.

Ask mental health providers lots of questions

Once you've found a few mental health providers who seem like they may suit you, it's time to call and ask a few more questions. In some cases, a receptionist may be able to answer most of your questions. You may be able to directly ask some mental health providers questions on the phone, or they may ask you to come in for an initial session.

Here are some issues to consider asking mental health providers about, either on the phone or at your first appointment:

  • Their education, training, licensure and years in practice. Licensing requirements can vary widely by state.
  • Office hours, fees, length of sessions and which insurance providers they work with, or if they work with Medicare or Medicaid.
  • Their treatment approach and philosophy, to make sure it suits your style and needs.
  • Whether they specialize in certain disorders or age groups. Some, for instance, work only with adolescents. Others specialize in eating disorders or substance abuse.

Don't hesitate to ask lots of questions. Finding the right match is crucial to establishing a good relationship and making sure you're getting the best treatment.

Evaluate progress with your mental health provider

Once you choose a mental health provider, make sure the match is working. If you don't feel comfortable after the first visit, talk about your concerns at your next session. Or consider finding a new mental health provider. As time goes by, think about how you feel and whether your needs are being met. Don't feel compelled to stay with a mental health provider if you're not comfortable.

Finding the right mental health provider can be hard work, and may require some trial and error. But it can also be rewarding. It may help you:

  • Resolve short term problems such as stress or conflicts caused by a particular situations
  • Work through long-standing personal issues
  • Relieve disruptive or bothersome symptoms
  • Overcome personal challenges
  • Improve your relationships with others
  • Ultimately enjoy your life more
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