Making Sense of Mental Health Credentials...
and Finding a Mental Health Provider
Finding a mental health professional that suits your needs can be a little confusing and tedious. First, people generally don’t seek out mental health services when they are feeling their absolute best. During an emotional crisis, searching for a helping professional is the last thing people feel like doing. Also, insurance companies commonly offer a list of providers in an area who are “in-network,” but these lists frequently fail to give you the specific information that would help you to choose a practitioner. Lists don’t give you a real sense of the real person behind the credentials, and I feel that this is most important quality. Finally, wading through the alphabet soup of credentials can be quite confusing. So, how do you find the right clinician?
Just to clarify, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who may or may not provide psychotherapy in addition to providing evaluations for psychotropic medication. Psychiatrists attend med school and then specialize in psychiatric issues. Basically, psychiatrists are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medication, except for some very specialized nurses with prescription privileges.
Psychologists, social workers, and licensed professional counselors, are mental health professionals who fall under the broad category of therapists. If you are interested in talk therapy—and there are many types—you probably want to find a licensed therapist before seeking out a psychiatrist.
The clinician’s education and training determines the letters after their name, but don’t be afraid to ask what abbreviations mean! Any therapist that you actually want to see more than once should be open to explaining these. I get the sense that many people are paralyzed by the taboo against asking their therapist questions, so they don’t feel entitled to ask basic questions about professional qualifications. It is absolutely okay to ask about questions about specialties, years of experience, and training.
The combination of talk therapy in addition to psychiatric medication is generally considered to be more therapeutic than medication alone. If you are interested in medication, then consider discussing this option with a therapist who may be able to refer you to a psychiatrist.
I’m a big believer if word-of-mouth referrals. These may come from other professionals in the field or friends or family who have recommendations. (Just make sure the referral is not too close to home.) Sometimes you can tell from an initial phone call whether you want to pursue a relationship with a particular clinician. I’m not even suggesting that you have a phone session, but recognize that a clinician should call you back within a reasonable amount of time, be polite, flexible, and professional. These basic courtesies give you a sense of the person and begin your evaluation process.
And one last thought—it is okay to “shop around” for a good fit. If you have a session with a psychiatrist or therapist and feel that the two of you are not a match, then consider giving it one more shot and then trying someone else.
Not every relationship is meant to be!