If you have any of the problems listed in How do you know when you need help?, you probably need mental health care. If you aren’t sure, you should at least see your family doctor. Some problems are easily addressed by safe and effective medications that your doctor can prescribe.

If you feel you need someone with whom to discuss your problems – and you want more professional advice – then you need to see a mental health professional.

Under some insurance plans you may not be able to get services from a mental health professional without first going to your family doctor and getting a referral.

Choosing a Mental Health Professional

Choosing the right mental health professional is important. First become familiar with the different types of mental health providers in your community. The differences usually have to do with education and training.

Gather recommendations from friends, family, your medical doctor, your clergy, your local Mental Health Association, and professional organizations such as the local branch of the Psychological Association. Check the Yellow Pages in your phone book under the listings of Mental Health Services; licensed Clinical Social Workers; Marriage, Family, Child Counselors; Psychologists; and Psychiatrists. Also read this resource guide for other suggestions.

About Licensed Mental Health Professionals in California:

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) has completed a master’s degree in social work with additional post-graduate work practicing under the supervision of a licensed therapist. Social Workers may provide psychotherapy, rehabilitation and case management services in hospitals, clinics and in private practice.

A Marriage, Family and Child Counselor (MFCC) has completed a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling, psychology, social work (emphasis clinical social work) or counseling (emphasis marriage, family and child counseling), with additional post-graduate work practicing under the supervision of a licensed psychotherapist. MFCCs may provide psychotherapy and work in a variety of settings with individuals, couples, families and children.

A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) with special education and training in psychiatry. She/he can diagnose and treat the biological causes of mental disorders and prescribe medications and other therapies.

A Psychologist must complete a Ph.D. psychology. He/she can evaluate, diagnose and treat nervous, emotional and mental disorders as well as problems of everyday life and the psychological aspects of injury and disease. Most psychologists have specialized expertise in testing, psychological evaluation and psychotherapy.

Other mental health professionals you may encounter include psychiatric nurses, social workers, substance abuse counselors, psychiatric technicians, case managers and specialized therapists. Some of these specialties require licenses.

Before Making Your First Call You May Need to Answer these Questions

Do you need someone who has special expertise? For example, do you need a mental health professional who specializes in working with adolescents, with older people, or with people who have sexual problems or substance abuse problems, or people who come from different cultural backgrounds and/or have specific cultural needs?

Where must a mental health professional be located to be convenient for you?

How much will you be able to pay for therapy? What will your insurance cover, what types of mental health professionals and services will it reimburse?

What are the professional’s qualifications, experience and training in the provision of culturally competent services?

The Mental Health Association in California suggests that if possible, you select three mental health professionals that you think might meet your needs. Call each of the three professionals and do a telephone interview.

Introduce yourself and explain that you are considering therapy. Ask them if they have the time to answer a few questions. If they don’t, ask them to call you back at a time that is convenient for both of you.

A telephone interview will help you decide with whom you think you could work. After speaking with the mental health professionals, reflect on how they made you feel. Were they easy to talk to? Did they seem supportive? Did they answer your questions clearly? Were you comfortable speaking to them?

Questions You Might Ask in a Telephone Interview

  • What are the professional’s qualifications, experience and training?
  • What kind of license does he/she have?
  • What is the fee? (If the fee is more than you can afford, can an adjustment be made, or is there a “sliding-scale” fee?)
  • Is there a charge for the initial consultation? If so, what is that charge?
  • Is insurance accepted and what plans are accepted? (If you are enrolled in a Health Maintenance Organization, you probably need a referral from your family’s doctor or primary care physician).
  • If on Medi-Cal or Medicare, is it accepted?
  • What type of therapy is most often used? (Ask for an explanation of any new terms.)
  • What hours are available for appointments and how soon can you schedule an appointment?
  • What experience does the professional have in treating your type of problem?
  • What are the professional’s qualifications. experience and training in the provision of culturally competent services?
  • During the first session you will want to learn the following information:
  • How long are therapy sessions?
  • How often will appointments be scheduled?
  • What will happen if you are late for a session or miss an appointment?
  • How can the therapist be reached in an emergency?
  • How much notice will you need to give to change an appointment?
  • How will insurance billings and co-payments be handled? When and how do you pay?
  • Who will see your records? How confidential is therapy?
  • What treatment approach will be taken?
  • How long will you be in therapy?
  • Will the professional be available for telephone calls outside of scheduled appointments?

Also, during the first session you may want to request that the mental health professional write a contract for treatment. A contract is a good idea because it helps you define the nature of the services you’ll be receiving, identify the problems you want to work on in therapy, and set goals for you to work toward. Feel free to discuss this with your therapist.

Community Mental Health vs. Private Therapy

Community Mental Health Agencies specialize in providing extensive mental health programs for more serious problems likely to require care for several months. Most of these agencies will see anyone seeking mental health care.

You may not always have a choice of whom you see, and you may not be able to talk with the professional before the first session. However, when you do speak with the mental health professional, he/she should be responsive to you and be willing to answer some of your questions.

Should you want assistance in understanding any of the services offered by your local Department of Mental Health, contact your Mental Health Association.