When it comes to mental health, there should be no shame in seeking help. Unfortunately, in today’s society, that isn’t always the case. Stigma, stereotypes, and myths can often get in the way. So, if you are seeking professional help for your mental health, we want to celebrate you!
But we also empathize with the difficulty of searching for the right help, and want to do what we can to assist you in this process.
Throughout the following post, we are going to dive into different types of mental health people, how to know which one(s) is right for you, and how to go about finding them. Lastly, we’re going to present you with 5 specific things to look for when searching for a mental health professional.
Different Types of Help
There are two broad buckets—peer-based (or non-professional) and professional. Peer-based include people such as coaches, recovery groups led by someone who has been down the same path, and facilitators for peer groups who have received state certifications. Examples are the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or 12-step groups like AA. Professionals are well-known jobs that have academic programs and often require licensing to practice—social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.
It’s also important to note that sometimes people in the professional world are also peers, and some peers become professionals after going through their own journey or seeing a close family member or friend go through it.
How to Know What Type(s) is Right For You
Before we dive into knowing whether peer or professional is right for you, it’s important to understand that these two are not mutually exclusive. There is great value in connecting to a recovery support system, which is typically peer-based. Because of this, professionals will often connect someone to a community of peers for extra support even while they work with the person in a professional treatment setting.
A big factor in determining what type of help you may need is figuring out whether you’re struggling with stress, a one-time event, or if this may be a mental illness or disorder. For more information to help distinguish that, check out our free resource here.
Oftentimes, people start with peers as it has the lowest barrier of entry—free, no insurance or “in-network’ hassles, able to pop into a meeting. This may be enough or could end up leading to professional resources and recommendations as needed. On the flip side, some people prefer to keep things more private and don’t want big communities right now so they will go the professional route from the start. What’s important is that you do what is best for you and your situation.
Process for Finding a Mental Health Professional
In the mental health space, the most popular way to find a mental health professional is asking friends, family members, or anyone else you trust in your life. This not only helps you open up to someone you trust, who can also help you get the help you need, but it also allows you to get first-hand information about a provider and someone’s experience.
A second popular way is looking online. Sites like WebMD or Psychology Today allow you to filter professionals by location, expertise, type, etc. You can then look at various profiles to see specifics about insurance, training they’ve gone through, area(s) of expertise and more.
Last, but not least, you can always bring your situation up with a primary care provider. They will be able to assess you and assist you in finding the right professional and provider for you. Also, don’t forget, if you want to use your insurance, always consult with your insurance carrier for who and what services they might cover.
5 Factors to Look For When Choosing a Mental Health Professional
When choosing the right person or people to help, it’s important to find professional(s) that fit your unique needs and situation. This also applies for peer-based support. These factors below are a mix of professionally-related (licensing, years of experience, etc.) and personally-related (friendliness, approachable, comfort level, etc.). So, let’s dive in!
When looking for a mental health professional, it’s important to make sure they are credentialed to do what you are seeking help from them for. Below are some examples of what we mean:
Psychiatrists = assessment and diagnosis, manage medication
Psychologists = more extensive neuropsychology testing and personality testing
Licensed counselor or clinical social worker = therapy and mental health struggles
Overall, make sure the professional you’re looking for is licensed—no matter what level they’re at—and has the proper degrees.
2. Area(s) of Specialization
Because every mental health disorder and struggle is different, professionals will oftentimes specialize in one or a few of them. Examples include eating disorders, depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma, marriage/couples, self-esteem, etc. So, let’s say you are struggling with anxiety problems, you’ll want someone who has worked with a lot of people around the topic of anxiety because they will know more about what you’re going through and how to help you.
Think of this in the medical sense—if you need surgery to fix a broken bone, you wouldn’t go see a cardiologist, right? While they are a doctor with some similar level of education, their speciality is in the heart, not bones. You’d also rather have the surgeon who has performed your surgery 3000 times, not only 3. This same principle can be applied when searching for a mental health professional.
One thing to note is that ‘general help' could be useful to start, especially if you’re lost on who to go to. A general practitioner can do screenings to assess you and help you figure out what specialists you will need to be referred to.
3. Their Approach
When it comes to mental health professionals, there are many different approaches they can choose to take. While they may offer many different approaches, oftentimes, there will be one that is their primary modality—whether that’s cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), trauma-informed therapies (EMDR, somatic experience), or psychodynamic therapy, to name a few. Other examples of this are family-systems or faith-based approaches. There is not necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach, but if you know that you prefer or that you do better with one kind, this might be something you seek out.
4. How Do You Feel Around Them?
Professional factors aren’t the only ones that matter; there are many personal factors that can play a big role in who you select. One example is how you feel around this professional—whether in person or in a virtual environment. Softer things like this can actually be just as, if not more, important than credentials. As long as they are licensed, the biggest difference between professional providers is going to be their tone, approachability, and environment.
When you are struggling with mental health, it’s important that you are comfortable being vulnerable. And if you don’t feel safe, cared for, or comfortable around a certain person, it’s likely you won’t open up and really receive the help and support you need. As you seek out different professionals, ask yourself how you feel around them, if you can relate to them, or if you feel you get along well. Because this is a ‘softer’ factor, there is nothing specific to look for. Rather, it's something you’ll know when you experience it (or when you don’t).
The last factor we recommend you think about when looking for mental health help is the person’s availability. This is definitely the most practical of all five factors, but it’s important nonetheless. For example, if you want to meet once a week, but someone can only meet once a month, that won’t fit what you’re looking for. Or if you’re in a certain level of crisis, you won’t want to wait three months for someone’s schedule to free up so they can fit you in. Whatever schedule or frequency you’re looking for, make sure the professional you choose can work with it.
Wrapping Up with Some Encouragement
We celebrate the fact that you are looking to seek help for your mental health! With all that we’ve shared, we also know it can take some time or a few tries to find the right professional and fit for you. And that can get discouraging quickly, so we want to leave you with some encouragement if you find yourself in this place.
Therapy is not a once-and-done thing—there’s no need to get it perfectly right the first time.
Most people see multiple professionals (4-5+) in their lifetime, depending on when you start
There’s actually no such thing as “perfect”
Every experience you have sets you up to have an even better experience going forward for getting mental health help and support because you’re learning along the way.
Mental health healing is a journey, not a destination.
You got this, and we believe in you. You are not alone!