The Right Mental Health Pro Needs the Right Qualifications
Despite evident strides for mental health awareness, the attitudes concerning how we treat said conditions in the United States continue to lag. Many skeptics doubt the efficacy of treatment or don't understand how professional help translates to real-world change.
A close examination of the history of psychiatry can help us understand this stigma.
While mental health care may have been flawed in the past, this field has advanced dramatically and offers hope to millions of people who struggle with chronic conditions. With so many advances in so many specialized fields of research, the biggest obstacle you face might be finding the right mental health professional for you.
Psychiatrists are doctors, too
When I started my journey down the mental health rabbit hole, I was plagued with insomnia and panic attacks. I wanted relief and did what most of us would do—retrieved my trusty laptop and searched the internet. I ended up with millions of mental health professionals, websites and blogs that all told me something slightly different.
After all my key-tapping, I was no closer to finding real answers.
There were numerous options to investigate, from online chats to phone or video counseling to in-person appointments. But where to begin? With so many promotional messages bombarding me, learning how to tell who was trustworthy and who to avoid became my first goal.
In the mental health community, there are two major divisions of mental health professionals: people who focus primarily on counseling and people who focus primarily on medical treatment.
'I went to med school and had to go through just as many residencies as any other physician you'll interact with.'
The certifications that allow these professionals to practice in their chosen field are very specific in the U.S. While there may be variation from state to state, overall, to prescribe medicine a clinician must actually be a medical doctor or have special licensing.
"Many people fear their mental health professional," said Holly A. Swartz, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, "But the truth is, I'm a doctor, just like any specialist you might see. I went to med school and had to go through just as many residencies as any other physician you'll interact with."
Swartz went on to explain that psychiatrists can be brought in at a variety of stages. Some patients want to be treated by one immediately, or by another physician with mental health specialties, while others might first see a counselor and eventually seek a psychiatrist for additional support.
In the initial stages of your search, verify the professionals you're looking into can provide the services you want. These credentials should be out in the open, whether on their website or hanging in their office. Part of your initial consultation should be focused on learning about them and how they are trained to help you.
Counselors, social workers and psychologists
Counselors hold at least master's level education and are certified in various modalities, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or talk therapy. Sessions may be private or in groups. Counselors can offer diagnoses but cannot prescribe medications.
Licensed social workers can perform the same functions as a counselor, and they hold similar master's level education. Their licensing is, unsurprisingly, specifically in social work. The counseling and interventions they provide may be unique to their field or in a specific area of counseling.
Finally, psychologists are mental health professionals with a doctoral degree. It's important to remember the difference in this designation. A doctoral degree is a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), not a doctor of medicine (M.D.).
"I can diagnose a patient and help them learn the same coping strategies and interventions as any other mental health professional," said Debra Kissen, Ph.D., chief executive officer of LightOnAnxiety. "However, when my patients feel that these traditional interventions are not helping them as much as they hoped, I often refer them to a psychiatrist, and together we make a care plan that can better address the needs of the specific patient."
These professionals have dedicated many years of the appropriate education, licensing and training to reach their professional level, and yet there are some who may be skeptical of their abilities. There are others who feel more comfortable interacting with a counselor simply because they don't want to visit a psychiatrist.
"The fear that I will evaluate a patient and have them 'committed' was very real in the early days of my career," Swartz said. "Thankfully, in recent years, this is less of a concern, but I start every initial consultation by listening to the patient's reasons for seeing me, their goals for treatment and, most importantly, their concerns for treatment."
Both Swartz and Kissen emphasized that maintaining their patient's comfort level is essential throughout treatment. Patients should be in a place where they are willing to listen to their counselor and understand how specific treatments can help them to identify and cope with their mental health condition. Without this level of trust, these interactions will likely fail.
A step in the right direction
Finding someone who is right for you can be a major obstacle. Your first task is to consider what type of therapy you think you need. This information can be deduced online, especially with the help of sources such as the National Alliance on Mental Health or the National Institute of Mental Health.
If you don't want to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of an internet search, you can seek a referral through your family practitioner or your health insurance company or you can contact your local government behavioral health organization directly. You'll receive a list of mental health professionals who are certified in various areas of treatment, and then your job is simply to call them. Ask them to discuss their experience, their specialties and their process for evaluation. The next stage is for you to tell them about yourself. Remember, the more honest you are about your condition, the more easily you'll find the right professionals to be on your team.
Always keep in mind that mental health treatment is a process. There are no magic pills or sessions that will cure you. Finding the right professionals may seem overwhelming, but step-by-step, you will find the best people to help you.