One Size Does Not Fit All: A Brief Guide to Finding a Mental Health Professional

By Jacqui Ragin, PhD

If you feel that you have a mental health concern, the first thing to realize is that you can get help. Due to the complex nature of mental health problems, they can affect people differently. They can potentially affect any one at any age and can be any combination of duration and intensity: mild, severe, short-term, or long-term. So not all mental health problems are diagnosed and treated in the same way or by the same provider. Here are some things to consider as you search for someone who may best fit your needs:

1. Make a list of your symptoms. The type of provider and care that you need may depend on the symptoms you are experiencing. For example, some issues may not require medication, but only counselling. So it is very important to make a list of ALL the symptoms you are having (see earlier articles on warning signs and types of mental health professionals to help guide you). Keep this list with you so that you can discuss it with the provider that you do finally choose.

2. Make a list of potential mental health professionals. You can get referrals from your primary care physician, local examiner boards, family and friends, insurance companies (they usually have a list of preferred providers), employee assistance programs (EAPs), online locators (some are provided at the end of this article), or by calling a helpline.

3. Research and review your lists. Based on your symptoms, cross check the qualifications and experience of the provider. Think of it like an interview process for a job or someone you would hire, where you need to see a resume or a reference for that professional. You can check their websites or call the offices for some specific information. For example, some important things to take into account or ask are:

  • Availability – Are they accepting new patients? Do they have an opening immediately? How long is the wait till the first appointment? If you prefer to meet someone in person, keep in mind that due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, some providers may only offer online/virtual services or you may have a long wait for in-person visit due to the COVID-19 related restrictions.

  • Cost – Do they accept your insurance? How much will your insurance cover? How much out-of-pocket will you have to pay? Does the provider offer a sliding scale, an income-based pricing?

  • Training, specialty, and license – What type of credentials do they have? Are they licensed? Do they have training specific to your situation?

  • Experience – How long have they worked in the field? How much experience do they have successfully treating and managing people with similar symptoms? What type of reviews have they received?

  • Type of therapy – What type of therapy do they offer? Do they use techniques that you are opposed to or are outdated? Are you comfortable with their approach? (We will provide more information on types of therapy in one of our next issues)

  • Location – Can you get to the appointment easily? Look up the address or zip code, and if it is not easy to get to, find out if they offer online/virtual services.

  • Gender Are you comfortable with the provider’s gender?

4. Narrow down your list by ranking in order of preference. Remember your first or second choice may not have the availability to see you right away (or may not accept new patients, not be affordable, or not close to you), so it is important to have as many options as possible.

5. Ask for a free first consultation. You can spend a few minutes talking on the phone to get a feel if this will be the right fit before you commit. In fact, if you can get a free initial consultation with two or three mental health professionals on your list, that is even better. This way, you can get a sense of which one you seem to connect with more comfortably. To make the most of the free consultation (or first visit if no free consultation), have a list of questions ready to help you stay focused on your goal to find the right fit. For example, you can ask some of the questions mentioned in point 3 earlier to get direct verification of their expertise and approach to diagnosis and treatment.

6. Choose your mental health professional. Make an appointment and keep it. The first visit is a crucial step towards your care. You are now starting to take a firm action to help yourself. If you are still not sure about the provider you have selected, or if at any point during your first—or even fourth—session you are not comfortable and don’t feel it’s the right fit, don’t be discouraged. Go back to the list you made and consider changing your mental health professional (tip: check offices that didn’t accept new patients or insurance the first time—sometimes, they open up sooner). You have the right to change your mental health professional if you feel the need to.

Please note: If you think you may have a medical emergency or are contemplating acting upon thoughts of suicide, call 911 or 988 immediately.

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