What You Need to Know about Seeking Mental Health Care

Have you taken stock of your mental health lately? Not even sure what that means? Let us help guide the way, and dispel some misconceptions about mental health treatment while we’re at it.

What are some signs that something is ‘off’ with your mental health?

We all sometimes feel sad, angry, and anxious. These feelings may arise in relation to work and school transitions, relationship challenges, and so on. Negative emotions are not – contrary to popular opinion – a bad thing. They provide really useful information about what’s important or scary to us. But when emotions, and the thoughts and behaviors associated with them, pull us away from who we want to be and interfere with our day-to-day lives, that’s a sign of a psychological problem that may be worth pursuing care for.

Examples of such symptoms include:

  • Seemingly uncontrollable worry
  • Persistent low mood
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty tolerating changes in emotions
  • Avoidance of things you used to enjoy or things you need to do to move forward successfully
  • Changes in sleep, eating (or appetite), and energy level
  • Persistent thoughts of worthlessness

Where should you start if you suspect something is off?

  • Your own doctor’s office can be a good place to start. Often, pediatricians and primary care physicians will be able to provide referrals to mental health providers in the community. Your doctor can also talk with you about what kind of treatment he or she thinks you might need or benefit from.
  • Your insurance website, as well as websites and non-profit organizations geared toward mental health, can also be a source of referral information. Insurance websites often provide lists of providers covered by your policy. Psychology Today provides a search tool for all mental health professionals, and the American Psychiatric Association provides a search tool for psychiatrists, specifically. Finally, there are a number of non-profit organizations geared specifically to aiding people in finding treatment. If you suspect you may have an eating disorder, for example, you might turn to the National Eating Disorder Association for referral resources. Other specialized referral resources include The American Anxiety and Depression Association and the Association for Cognitive and Behavior Therapy.

Who should I see?

Psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and social workers are the most common providers of mental health services. You may also see a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, or licensed school psychologist. If you’re not sure what the letters after a clinician’s name mean or how to put together an eating disorder treatment team, see the related posts.

For more general information, see the American Psychological Association’s guide for understanding the differences between types of mental health providers.

Making the call

  • When you contact a possible treatment provider, you will be asked to provide some information by phone. Providers and practices vary in how much information they will get ahead of time versus during your first meeting.
  • Many providers have someone available to answer phone calls, but others do not. Therapists in private practice, in particular, are likely to return your call within a specified amount of time.
  • Emergencies: If the situation is urgent or you feel as though you are in imminent danger, you can call 911 or proceed to your nearest hospital emergency room. Some hospitals will direct you to a designated psychiatric emergency room staffed by mental health professionals. Some states and cities also offer local options for mental health emergencies, for example:

If your city does not have a local resource, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255

During your first appointment

  • Your provider will begin the appointment by providing information about the purpose of the initial meeting and what it will involve.
  • The first appointment is also typically a time of “information gathering.” The clinician will likely ask you many questions about why you decided to come in, the history of your symptoms, and more general information about your life (such as where you live and who you live with, and how you spend your time). The purpose of this is to get a complete picture of your life, rather than simply knowing the piece of it that is your symptoms.
  • The clinician is also likely to ask questions about other symptoms that you may or may not have experienced. For example, if you seek out an evaluation for anxiety, you might be asked about your substance use. Clinicians are trained to thoughtfully explore potential connections between symptoms (i.e., in the example above, some substances might be worsening anxiety while others might be inappropriately ‘medicating’ it), and to create personalized treatment plans.
  • At the end of your evaluation (which may be one or a few sessions), your provider will speak with you about the type of treatment they recommend for you, and whether or not they feel they are the right person to provide it.
  • If there is a shared commitment to starting treatment together, then general information will be provided about confidentiality, fees/billing, emergency procedures, and cancellation policies.
  • If the clinician is unable to provide the care they feel you need, they will help connect you to someone else who can and (with your written permission) will convey all of the valuable information you provided in the in initial consultation.

The process of therapy

  • The process of therapy can take many forms, depending on the presenting issues and type of treatment used. Traditionally, therapy takes place one or multiple times per week in the therapist’s office for ~50 minutes, the format may differ depending on the presenting problem. Some people benefit most from treatment programs where multiple services (medications, therapy, nutritional counseling) are offered in the same place.
  • The length of a “course” of therapy can be anywhere from a few sessions to a few years, but likely somewhere in the middle.
  • Therapy typically begins with identifying what you want to change and setting goals. This helps you and your therapist keep track of whether you are making progress.
  • There are many types of therapy. Some forms of therapy place more focus on thoughts and feelings; others on relationships; still others on motivation. Most therapies involve some combination of these things.
  • As therapy progresses, your goals may shift. You and your therapist may determine that you may no longer need therapy, or you may have new goals that you wish to work on.

Stay tuned for our upcoming related post on busting some myths about therapy!

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