Getting Help

A man experiencing depressionFor a variety of reasons, many people with mental health problems do not seek treatment. Some believe they can handle the problem on their own; many are unaware that a mental health problem is what is making them feel bad or function poorly. Stigma continues to be an obstacle to treatment for some people and for parents who do not want to label their child as “depressed” or “anxious.” Concern about confidentiality and a lack of understanding about Federal and state privacy laws and how they protect people is sometimes a barrier to treatment. Some people believe that their health insurance will not pay for mental health treatment and, so, they think they cannot afford it, while others lack confidence that treatment will be effective.

The good news is that mental health treatment most often is effective. Understanding the possibilities for how mental health treatment is usually provided helps to make it more accessible.

Today, many medical providers (e.g., primary care physicians, internists) recognize that mental health problems, sometimes with coinciding alcohol and other substance abuse problems, pose significant challenges to the physical health, safety and well-being of their patients. As a result, many doctors and other health care providers routinely screen their patients for depression, anxiety and alcohol or other substance abuse. A lot of effective mental health treatment actually happens within regular medical settings. In fact, primary care physicians are the most frequent prescribers for antidepressant medications, making treatment for depression significantly more accessible than it otherwise would be.

Referrals to mental health professionals are sometimes needed and often helpful. Counseling or psychotherapy is most often provided by social workers, counselors, marriage and family therapists or psychologists. The primary care provider may prescribe medication and refer their patient for counseling because research shows that the combination of medication and counseling is usually the most effective approach. Sometimes, a psychiatrist may be the one to provide an evaluation and prescribe medication or make recommendations to the primary care provider who then prescribes medication.

There are a variety of different types of mental health professionals who provide services that are unique to their specialty. Psychiatrists are physicians whose specialty is to evaluate mental health problems and prescribe medications and other treatments. Advance nurse practitioners also may evaluate and prescribe medications. Counseling or psychotherapy is usually provided by a psychologist, social worker, counselor, or marriage and family therapist.

All of these mental health professionals hold advanced degrees and have completed post-graduate supervised training and are licensed by the state to practice. The credentials for the various disciplines can be a bit confusing.

The letters after a provider’s name indicates the type of provider they are:

  • MD – medical doctor
  • ANP – advanced nurse practitioner
  • PhD or PsyD – psychologist
  • LCSW, LICSW, LCSW-R – licensed clinical social worker
  • LPC – licensed professional counselor
  • LMHC – licensed mental health counselor
  • LMFT – licensed marriage and family therapist
  • CASAC – certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor

One of the most important things to remember about any mental health issue – there is nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to hide. Whether it is yourself or someone you love, work with, or a student in your classroom that is experiencing the issue – help is available. Please reach out.

How to choose a therapist or other mental health provider

What difference does a degree make?

A counselor or therapist can be very helpfulWhen looking for counseling or psychotherapy, the degree the therapist holds is probably not as important as the expertise they have and the goodness of the fit between you and the therapist. The therapist should have a state-issued license to practice that indicates that minimum education and experience qualifications have been met. In most states only and MD or ANP can prescribe medication. A primary care provider, psychiatrist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner can prescribe medication. Sometimes a primary care provider will require consultation with a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or other mental health professional for an evaluation to help with diagnosis and to assist with managing treatment. There are a variety of treatment options win seeking mental health services. What you choose should depend on what you need.

Consider the Theoretical Orientation

When selecting a therapist it is helpful to understand that they usually identify themselves as having a “theoretical orientation.”

These include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral which focuses on how thoughts and behaviors influence feeling and often involves “homework” between sessions
  • Behavioral which focuses solely on changing behaviors
  • Psychodynamic which is based on a relationship between the therapist and the client to that provides support and understanding for a corrective emotional experience
  • Family systems which views the problem in the context of present family and family of origin history and frequently used to address problems relating to alcohol or other substance abuse
  • Solution-focused which is a short-term cognitive-behavioral approach that helps clients focus and act on solutions rather than engage in problem thinking, feelings, and behaviors
  • Eclectic which uses a variety of perspectives

Making the Connection: Take Two Practical Steps

Call to ask questionsStep 1: Many people start with a word of mouth referral from a trusted friend or family member or with a referral from a primary care provider or insurance company. Check to see if your insurance provides an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Once you have some names make some phone calls and start with some basic questions:

  • Where are you located?
  • What are your fees and/or do you take my insurance?
  • What appointment times do you have available?
  • What is your experience with my issue?

Step 2: Then based on the information and experience from those phone calls, schedule an initial consultation with a therapist. This provides the opportunity to “try it on” before making a commitment.

What to Expect

I’ve scheduled my first appointment, now what?

During the initial consultation you can expect to:

  • Talk about the problem that leads you to seek therapy and provide other relevant information
  • Identify goals for the therapy and how you and the therapist would work together
  • Be informed about the limits of confidentiality and privacy
  • Have the opportunity to ask questions to determine if this is the right therapist

Decide if this is the right practitioner for you

Shaking handsIf you are comfortable with the outcome of the discussion, this may be the right therapist for you. If not, keep looking. Do not worry about not finding the right fit on your first try. What’s important is that you find someone that you feel comfortable with; this is the only way you will go consistently and be able to benefit from treatment.


NEA Healthy Futures provides information and is not endorsing or recommending any specific treatment. Consult your health care provider or a qualified mental health professional to determine what is appropriate for you.