The most important step in treating a mental health condition sometimes feels like a challenging one: finding a mental health professional. A trustworthy and knowledgeable mental health professional will be a valuable ally. It may take a little time and persistence to locate this ally or assemble a team of allies. Following the plan below can increase the chance of finding someone whom you feel comfortable working with.
Step 1: Think About Whom You're Looking For
People have many different reasons to consult a mental health professional. Are you looking for someone who is licensed to prescribe medication? Or are you looking primarily for someone to talk to?
Most people treating a mental health condition have at least two separate professionals, one focusing on medication (the biological side) and the other focusing on emotional or behavioral therapies (the mind side). Here are some things to think about:
- If you haven't talked to a physician yet, you should see one for a physical exam. Many illnesses can cause symptoms similar to mental illness. Even if you don't think your condition will require medical treatment, tell a doctor about your symptoms and get a diagnosis.
- If you have a mental health condition that may benefit from medication, you should probably consult a mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist, rather than relying on a primary care doctor. Primary care doctors are important allies in managing your "big picture" health, but a specialist has had more experience treating conditions like yours.
- If you're seeking help with emotions, behaviors and thinking patterns, you should locate a therapist or counselor. Like doctors, therapists and counselors have specialties, so you can find one who knows about your specific condition.
- If you have to wait for an appointment, you can start using other support resources in the meantime. Peer support groups, such as those sponsored by NAMI, are available for free. Your local mental health authority may also be able to connect you with licensed peer specialists in your state.
- If you need assistance with housing and employment, or have multiple health challenges or difficulties affording treatment, would you benefit from having a social worker on your treatment team?
Step 2: Gather Referrals
If you have health insurance, start by calling your insurer's information number. Ask for phone numbers of professionals in your area who accept your insurance plan. Try to get at least three names and numbers, just in case. This is also a good time to ask for clarification of your insurance benefits. Here are some questions you might ask:
- Can you make a direct appointment with a psychiatrist, or do you need to see a primary care doctor first for a referral?
- How does your plan cover visits to therapists? Therapy coverage can vary greatly between insurance plans.
- If you need help with a specific condition such as addiction or an eating disorder, ask for doctors with the subspecialty you need.
If you do not have health insurance, your first stop should be your community mental health center. You can find the phone number in a phone book or at a public library.
Step 3: Make the Call
If you find you're reluctant to call, ask a friend or family member to call for you. Make an appointment. If it's your first time seeking a diagnosis, tell the person on the phone so that they can block out enough time for a good conversation.
If you're told that new patients have to wait many months for an appointment, it would be wise to make an appointment anyway. Then call the second and third numbers on your list. You can always cancel your first appointment if you find someone who can help you sooner.
Another way to get an appointment sooner is to join the waiting list for cancellations. If another patient cancels at the last minute, you may get an appointment earlier than you expected.
If you feel you can't wait weeks or months for help, see your primary care doctor as soon as possible to get treatments and support to tide you over until you have your team assembled. And if you're in an emergency situation, please go immediately to a hospital emergency room.
Step 4: Ask Questions
In your first visit with a doctor or therapist, you're seeking advice but you're also "shopping around." It's reasonable to ask questions. Be honest about the fact that you're looking for someone you can work with long-term. Here are some questions you might want to think about or ask:
- Do you feel comfortable with this person? Even if this person has a good reputation or a high level of education, the most important thing is whether you can work well together. What "vibe" do you get? The personal questions a mental health professional asks may make you uncomfortable sometimes, but the person shouldn't make you uncomfortable. You should feel that this person is on your side.
- How much education and professional experience does this person have?
- Has this person worked with people similar to me? For how long?
- How will you work together to establish goals and evaluate your progress?
- What can you expect if you work together? How often will you meet and how hard will it be to get an appointment? Can you call on the phone or email between appointments? What kind of improvements can you expect to see?
- If you're concerned about your ability to meet insurance co-pays or deductibles, bring it up now rather than later. Ask if you can pay on a sliding scale or at a discount. Doctors and therapists would like to know ahead of time if these problems might arise because it's important to continue treatment without interruption.
- If having a provider who understands and respects your cultural background is important to you, NAMI offers some tips to help find the right provider for you.
Step 5: Build a Relationship
Sometimes the first person you visit might not "feel right" or lack experience with your particular mental health condition. Move on to the next phone number on your list and keep looking.
Remember that you're recruiting team members who can help you with your treatment long-term. With a little persistence, you'll find people who will listen to you, take your perspective into consideration and work with you to improve your sense of well-being.