Finding the Right Mental Health Professional for You

Compare counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, review different kinds of mental health treatments, learn what type of therapy is right for you and take the first steps towards mental wellness.

Last Updated: 06/26/2020
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MEET THE EXPERT

Adrienne Augustus

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Adrienne Augustus is a mental health advocate and founder of A Beautiful Mind Foundation Inc., a grantmaking charity dedicated to funding culturally competent mental health support services and programs. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a Master of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Amanda Darnley

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Dr. Amanda (Banes) Darnley is a licensed clinical psychologist with over a decade of experience working with adolescents and parents in a variety of settings including inpatient hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and outpatient practices.

On This Page

Whether you’ve experienced the sudden loss of a loved one or you just aren’t feeling yourself lately, therapy can help people through all kinds of challenges. People turn to therapy for everything from low self-confidence to serious mental health disorders. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43% of adults with mental illness seek professional help, normalizing the concept that therapy is a tool all people should utilize as part of a healthy mind and body.

For the 57% of those who have yet to seek help, knowing who to turn to can be confusing. It’s not always clear which mental health professional, and what type of approach, is best suited to you and your personal needs. If you’re ready to take the first step to a healthier mind, keep reading to learn what mental health professionals are available, which treatment types are at your disposable, and how you can get started from making the first call to funding your visit.

Breaking Down Your Therapy Options

There are so many options among therapy approaches and mental health professionals that it can be tough to know where to start. Let’s take a look at the most commonly visited professionals, what they do, who they serve, and their educational backgrounds.

Counselor

Counselors can be social workers or other types medical professionals depending entirely on the setting in which they work. While some states require counselors to receive special training or licensure to provide support for a specific population such as those recovering from addiction, there is no one set degree path for counselors. Unlike other mental health professionals, the title counselor is more of an umbrella term encompassing any professional who provides support to patients as they work toward a preferred outcome, such as sobriety. Counselors are typically not trained to addresses mental health issues depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorder.

Therapist

The term therapist is a regulated term in some states, and the position generally requires some level of clinical understanding of psychology. Therapists must become licensed in order to practice, but unlike counselors who may work toward one specific outcome, therapists tend to focus on the whole person over a longer period of time. Therapists may choose one or more techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help their patients understand their interactions with regard to the world around them in an attempt to effect positive change.

Psychologist

Psychiatrist

Common Types of Individual Therapy

Therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. There are therapies that target phobias, PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, more serious mental illness, and more. Let’s take a look at some of the most common therapy approaches, what makes them unique, and who they might be best to help.

Psychodynamic Therapy

How it works

This is an in-depth form of talk therapy primarily used to treat serious psychological disorders, such as depression, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, and some forms of addiction. The talk therapy encourages patients to discuss anything that comes to mind, explore how it connects to other things in their lives, and understand how repressed emotions can lead to issues with decision-making and relationships.

Who it’s good for

This therapy is good for those with serious psychological disorders, as well as those who suffer from depression, have trouble finding meaning in their lives, or have issues with creating and maintaining healthy relationships.

Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Humanistic Therapy

Group Therapy

In many ways, group therapy is exactly what it sounds like: A group of people, two or more, visit a therapist in tandem and discuss their shared issues together. Group therapies are common for couples and families, and can help them deal with difficult issues, such a grief, divorce, recovery from abuse, and more.

Couples Therapy

How it works

This form of psychotherapy targets those in romantic relationships. It works by helping couples gain insight into how each person acts in a relationship, learn how to resolve conflict in a healthy manner, and exercise therapeutic interventions to heal emotional wounds and create a stronger bond. The therapy might focus on a specific problem, or might focus on the relationship in general.

Who it’s good for

Many people come to couples or marriage therapy when significant damage has occurred in a relationship. However, it’s a good idea for anyone in a relationship to “check in” with a therapist, along with their partner, to help maintain the health of their union.

Family Therapy

Online Therapy

Online therapy has become more popular over the years and with the COVID-19 outbreak making social distancing the norm, online therapy is quickly becoming the norm, as well. Many of the same professionals who provide in-person therapy also provide online therapy; however, there are some therapists who provide online therapy only, and have built their practice around that premise.

Online therapy works by allowing the patient to use a video or text messaging service, especially one that is in alignment with HIPPA, to speak virtually with their mental health professional. This might be especially good for those who have precarious physical conditions, such as those at risk for infections like COVID-19, those who have extremely busy schedules, and even those who are simply more comfortable with undergoing therapy in the privacy of their own home.

Finding Your Fit: Questions to Ask Yourself

Just as every person is unique, every approach to therapy will be unique as well. That’s why it’s important to narrow down your options to find the mental health professional who is right for you. It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes the first therapist you try might not be the right one for you and in that case, it’s perfectly okay to keep looking to find someone who meshes well with your needs. To help you narrow down the options, here are some questions to ask yourself.

Do you often wish you could simply talk to someone who would listen with an impartial ear?

If this is the case, a counselor or therapist could be a great first line of defense. Consider the issues that you’re struggling with the most and look for counselors or therapists who are dedicated to treating those particular points.

Is it important to you that your mental health professional can prescribe psychiatric medications?

If you know you might be dealing with an issue that could require medication to treat, you’ll want to look at seeing a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has the power to prescribe medications.

Does a professional’s level of training matter to you?

If you want to see someone who has years of clinical experience and training, as well as a high level of education, a psychologist or psychiatrist could be your choice since they have doctoral degrees.

What kind of budget do you have?

Therapy can be expensive, especially when seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. How much your insurance will cover and how much you are willing to spend out of pocket, can help determine the options. Read more about funding mental health treatment below.

Finding Your Match Can Take Time

Once you’ve chosen a provider, keep in mind that your first match might not always be the right one. Ms. Augustus explains:

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“Office settings can be just as important as your engagement with the provider. How crowded is the waiting room? Does the office staff make you feel comfortable or agitated? Is the practitioner on time? Are you comfortable in his or her office? Do you connect based on his or her personality? And, does the practitioner speak to you in a way that makes you feel heard or like you are a case study?

I have experienced a variety of situations including standing-room-only lobbies; thin walls where other people could be heard talking; one location that included play therapy with children loudly playing in the next room; an office that felt more like the practitioner’s living room but in a bizarre, not comforting way and; years ago, one practitioner who immediately asked me if I could help him get a television interview to promote his book because I had connections in the local television news market. In every case, I left knowing I had to continue my search for a mental health practitioner.”

When to Seek Therapy

Anyone can turn to a mental health professional at any time; there doesn’t have to be a “problem” in order to seek treatment. However, there are some issues and warning signs that tell you to seek professional help for you or a loved one. Here are a few that should spark concern and push you to make an appointment.

In AdultsIn AdolescentsIn Children
Substance abuseOutbursts of angerHyperactivity
Suicidal thoughtsSudden drops in gradesExcessive crying
Confused thinkingArguments with friendsActing out with anger or belligerence
Excessive cryingPhysical aggressionComplaints of headaches, stomachaches, and general illness even though they appear well
Feelings of hopelessness or helplessnessLoss of interest in friends, school, sports, and hobbiesSelf-harming
Sleeping too little, or sleeping too muchSpending a great deal of time aloneA preoccupation with death or dying
Loss of interest in things you used to enjoyNeglecting appearance or hygieneWithdrawing from friends and family

Common Myths About Therapy

Unfortunately, the wealth of myths surrounding therapy can sometimes prevent a person from seeking help, even when they really need it. Let’s clear up some of these misconceptions.

  • Only crazy people need therapy This is absolutely not the case. Anyone can use a good therapy session. Consider it a “tune up,” if you will, just providing an opportunity to vent to an impartial person who can provide you with some advice or guidance on typical, everyday problems.
  • I can solve my own problems In many cases, you can. And that’s great! But sometimes problems can become too much to handle, too heavy of a burden to carry, and that’s when therapy can help. A mental health professional can guide you through the options to solve those problems and even help you see solutions you never considered before.
  • Therapy always leads to medication Sometimes you might come to the decision, with the help of a psychiatrist, that medication is a good idea. However, medication is not a first-line treatment; talk therapy is. Many people find that simply talking to a counselor on a regular basis is all they need to stay on an even keel.
  • If my boss finds out, I could get fired According to the EEOC, an employer cannot discriminate against you for having a mental health condition. You can’t be fired, forced to take leave, or rejected for a job or promotion for getting mental health care. Furthermore, an employer can’t rely on myths or stereotypes when it comes to deciding if you can perform your job; they must have objective evidence to prove you can’t.
  • Getting help means I’m weak On the contrary, it can be quite difficult to reach out for help. There is no shame in admitting that you need someone to talk to, that depression is getting the best of you, or that you are having trouble handling a particular situation. Reaching out helps ensure you are doing the best things possible for yourself and those around you.
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“I truly believe that everyone, at some point in their life, should see a therapist. Life is not a smooth ride. Getting mental health care is not only for people with a diagnosis of a serious mental illness like major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Anyone may need a little help to maintain good mental wellness, and that is ok. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help; it is the strong person who admits they need help and asks for it.”

Where to Find Professional Help

Now that you’ve decided professional help is a good idea, how do you get started finding it? “In a perfect world, finding a mental health professional would be like shopping at a well-stocked supermarket – lots of choices for a variety of personal preferences,” Ms. Augustus says. “Unfortunately for many people, the search for a mental health professional begins with the list of “in-network” providers who accept their insurance.”

The good news is that as more people seek out mental health care, many insurance companies are expanding what they will cover. These steps can help you get started on finding the right professional.

The First Steps

  • Ask your family doctor for a referral. Consider getting more than one name, so you can interview multiple options before deciding.
  • Call your health insurance company for a list of providers who are on your plan.
  • You can find affordable mental health services through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment
  • Your local health department’s mental health division or community mental health center provides free or low-cost treatment and services on a sliding scale. These services are state funded and are obligated to first serve individuals who meet “priority population criteria” as defined by the state Mental Health Department.
  • Your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can issue a referral to a provider. Reach out to your Human Resources office to get more information about your company’s EAP
  • Medicare offers a list of participating mental health professionals on its website, medicare.gov

Funding Your Mental Health Care

Mental health care can be expensive, and sometimes insurance doesn’t cover what you need. In that case, it can be helpful to look for funding or low-cost options. Here are a few that might help:

  • College mental health services These are often available on campus or there students can get a referral to a mental health clinic in the area.
  • Indian Health Services Members of Tribal Nations can turn here to find the help they need.
  • Veterans Administration Veterans can reach out for help, including with PTSD and other service-related issues.
  • Clinics on a sliding scale Many mental health clinics understand that some can’t afford their services. Therefore, they look at a person’s income and assign a fee based on that.
  • Government programs Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) all have some coverage for mental health care.
  • Rural programs based on state funding States receive block funding from the federal government that can then be used to help fund mental health programs. Speaking to a social worker can help you locate these in your state.

Insight from the Expert

Dr. Amanda Darnley
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Dr. Amanda (Banes) Darnley is a licensed clinical psychologist with over a decade of experience working with adolescents and parents in a variety of settings including inpatient hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and outpatient practices.

Q. When a person begins to narrow down their options for mental health professionals, what are some questions they should ask before making that appointment?

I’d recommend asking about payment options first. You want to get that squared with away immediately. It’s such a letdown spending time on the phone explaining the reason you are seeking therapy, only to discover at the end of the call that the clinician doesn’t take your preferred method of payment. If you intend to go through insurance, make sure that the therapist takes your insurance. If not, follow up with your insurance carrier and see if they cover out-of-network providers. Some will cover a percentage of your sessions, which might make seeing a private pay therapist more affordable. If you prefer to pay out of pocket, inquire about a sliding scale option. Make sure you end the call knowing how much you are paying for the sessions.

Ask about experience. Not all therapists are equipped to deal with all concerns. Ask your potential therapist about whether they have worked with someone who has experienced similar problems to yours. Don’t be deterred if they haven’t! Follow up and make sure your therapist intends to seek out supervision from someone more experienced.

Don’t be afraid to ask about their training, specialties, and approach to treatment. There is always more than one way to treat a problem. Make sure you are scheduling with a clinician who takes an approach that vibes with your personality.

Ask about timelines for therapy. Most current therapies are designed to be time limited. Of course, your therapist will need to get to know you a bit more in depth before coming up with a plan for treatment, but you can inquire about a general timeframe and frequency of sessions upfront.

Q. Sometimes a mental health professional just isn’t a good fit. How can a person sever that professional relationship with courtesy and no guilt?

Q. Though some might think their options are limited to counselors or therapists or psychologists, are there other professionals who help with or supplement mental health care?

Q. What’s a myth about mental health care that drives you crazy?

Resources

American Psychological Association. 

The APA is a well-known organization that provides a wealth of information, including a provider locator.

MentalHealth.gov. 

This government website is a great overview of mental health issues across the United States.

Mental Health First Aid. 

This site can help you find assistance with mental health, as well as provide some tools that allow you to help others.

Military OneSource. 

This site offers help for veterans and their loved ones.

National Alliance on Mental Health: Types of Mental Health Professionals. 

This site offers great information as well as a rundown of the various types of professionals and what each could do for you.

National Council on Behavioral Health. 

Part of this website includes a comprehensive search portal to help find a therapist or counselor in your area.

National Institute of Mental Health. 

NIMH provides a wealth of information on all aspects of mental health, including finding a professional.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

This government website can help you find assistance; keep in mind that despite the name, you don’t have to have a problem with substance abuse to turn here.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Mental Health. 

This page has numerous resources to help veterans and their families.

World Health Organization: Mental Health. 

You are not alone, and the data on this renowned site proves it. Read here for more information on mental health issues across the world.