Mental Health: Finding the Help You Need

When your life spins out of control, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends you seek the help of a trained mental health professional if:

  • You constantly worry.

  • You feel trapped.

  • You aren't getting any better with self-help.

  • You feel as if you can't handle things alone.

  • Your feelings are affecting your job, relationships or sleep or eating habits.

Other reasons to seek help: Someone who knows you well suggests that you go to counseling or you have an untreated problem with substance abuse.

These are only some of the symptoms that may warrant seeking help. You may have others that concern you.

Finding help

The first person to consult may be your family health care provider to find out if your symptoms may be caused by medical conditions. If a medical condition is not the cause, your provider may be able to suggest a mental health professional.

The mental health professional you choose should be licensed by your state. These are the types of professionals who provide mental health services:

  • Psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a doctor with at least four years of specialized study and training in psychiatry after medical school. Psychiatrists can provide medical and psychiatric evaluations, treat disorders, provide psychotherapy, and prescribe and monitor medications.

  • Psychologist. A psychologist has a master's degree in psychology or a doctoral degree in clinical, educational, counseling or research psychology. Psychologists provide psychological testing and evaluations, treat emotional and behavioral problems and mental disorders, and provide psychotherapy.

  • Social worker. A social worker has a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree and is licensed to practice social work. Social workers can assess and treat psychiatric illnesses, and do psychotherapy.

  • Psychiatric/mental health nurse. This is a specially trained nurse with a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree. Mental health nurses can assess and treat illnesses, and do case management and psychotherapy. In some states, some psychiatric nurses with advanced training can prescribe and monitor medication.

  • Licensed professional counselor. A counselor has a master's degree in psychology, counseling or a similar discipline and has postgraduate experience. Counselors may provide services that include diagnosis and counseling.

The cost of counseling services depends on whether you choose a public or community-based practitioner, or one in private practice.

Where to look

"Finding the way toward a solution can be as simple as a quick phone call," says Don Jorgensen, Ph.D., past president of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

He advises:

  • Consult your employer's EAP. "If your organization offers an employee assistance program [EAP], you're very fortunate," says Dr. Jorgensen. "You can contact the EAP for any reason, even if you're not sure you need help. All contact with the EAP is completely confidential." Whether you want advice for relationship problems or financial difficulties, or you need help for severe anxiety or drug addiction, an EAP can connect you with services you need.

  • Call your HMO. If you have health insurance, it may or may not cover mental heath services. Your health plan may have a special phone number you can call to find out if you have coverage, as well as what services are covered and any limit on the amount the plan will pay. There may be restrictions on where you get services.

  • Check with a community mental health center for guidance or a referral. These centers are listed in the telephone book, and may be the most affordable option for people who don't have access to an EAP or who have no mental health coverage. These centers offer a range of mental health treatment and counseling services, usually at a reduced rate if you qualify. They generally require you to have a private insurance plan or to be a recipient of public assistance.

If you don’t have health insurance or your insurance does not cover mental health, look for these resources:

  • Pastoral counseling. Your church or synagogue can put you in touch with a pastoral counselor. Certified pastoral counselors are ministers in a recognized religious body who have advanced degrees in pastoral counseling, and professional counseling experience.

  • Self-help groups. Another option is to join a self-help or support group to learn about, talk about, and work on problems such as alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, family issues or personal relationships.

An informed choice

Before establishing a relationship with any mental health professional, Dr. Jorgensen urges you to make certain the person has training and experience in your area of concern, whether that is alcohol, depression, gambling, domestic violence, family therapy or marriage counseling.

"It's always appropriate to ask about qualifications," he says.

Also, you have the right to choose a professional who can meet your cultural concerns, Dr. Jorgensen says. For example, if you're a woman dealing with domestic-violence issues, feel free to ask for a female therapist. But a therapist doesn't necessarily have to be like you to be able to help you. What's most important is that the therapist is someone you feel comfortable talking honestly to, and is someone who seems to care about your well-being.

"Whoever you choose, don't wait," Dr. Jorgensen says. "I can tell you any therapist would rather have you come in sooner with a minor concern than wait until it affects your job performance, home life or health."

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