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How different mental health professionals help you heal

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Are you feeling stressed or sad? Talking to a therapist can help you feel better. Learn what different providers do and how to find the right fit for you.

Feeling sad or stressed out? Maybe it’s time to get help.

About 1 in every 6 adults will have depression at some time in their life. That’s when you have symptoms such as sadness and anxiety that last for a long time. You might also lose interest in things you used to enjoy. You might feel tired or have trouble sleeping. About 16 million Americans get depression every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1

And people who have depression often have other mental health issues too. Those feelings can get in the way of everyday life. And they can last a long time.

If you have mental health issues, take the first step. Find someone who can help you get better. Medicines can work. But one of the best ways to treat issues like depression and anxiety is talk therapy (psychotherapy). That’s when you speak to someone who is trained to listen to your thoughts and problems. Your therapist can help you cope with your feelings.

Want to learn more about the benefits of therapy? Check out this episode of our podcast Until It's Fixed.

How to find a therapist

Finding the right therapist takes a little work. You need someone you feel comfortable with, says Lynn Bufka, PhD, of the American Psychological Association. “You have to trust that they’re doing what’s best for you.”

Here are some ideas to start your search:

  • Talk to your doctor. They might suggest someone they know and trust, who is licensed to offer mental health services.
  • Do your homework. Find out if therapists have worked with your issue before. You can usually find that information on their website.
  • Check your health plan. Learn which mental health doctors your insurance works with. Call the number on the back of your ID card.

Types of mental health professionals

There are many kinds of mental health professionals. But they all have one thing in common. Their job is to help you live a happier, healthier life. Sometimes your choice will be simple.

If you have marriage problems, you might want to see a marriage and family therapist. But most mental health professionals can care for lots of different problems.

The most important thing is to understand what makes each therapist special. That will help you choose. Here’s a guide to the types of therapists. It can help you decide which one will work for you.

Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)

Social workers use talk therapy to care for people with mental health issues.2 But they’re also trained to help you with other problems. They can help you find legal help. Or they can put you in touch with food assistance or health care services.

How an LCSW can help: They’re a great choice if you need social services. Need to find memory care for an older adult? Having trouble finding a ride or a place to live? A licensed clinical social worker can help you with those issues.

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Licensed professional counselor (LPC)

This is a type of behavioral health specialist. They use talk therapy to care for mental health issues, like depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. They teach you skills to help you change the way you think and act. They’ll give you the tools you need to deal with issues such as anxiety or panic attacks.3

How an LPC can help: Counselors can help you create a practical action plan to get real results as soon as possible.

Licensed marriage family therapist (LMFT)

First thing to know? They’re not just marriage specialists. These mental health pros do have special training in couples counseling. But they also use talk therapy to help with family problems. They believe that mental health issues are tied to the whole family. They may ask other family members to attend visits with you. And they may work with several family members at once.4

How an LMFT can help: Maybe relationship problems are hurting your family life. And maybe those problems are causing anxiety or depression. LMFTs are trained to help people solve problems as a family.

Clinical psychologist

Psychologists also do talk therapy for all kinds of problems. They usually have a doctoral degree in psychology. They understand the research about causes and treatments for mental health problems.They can also use tests to help diagnose a problem and choose the right care plan. For example, they might do a screening for anxiety to understand why someone gets panic attacks.

How a clinical psychologist can help: If you think your problem might be serious or complicated or is long-standing, a clinical psychologist might be a good choice.5 For example, they can help with mood swings or severe depression.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)

These are nurses who care for mental health conditions. They can do talk therapy. And in most states, they can also prescribe medicines.

How a PMHNP can help: They’re trained to care for everything that affects your health. And unlike many other therapists, they can usually prescribe medicines.6 You might want to see a nurse practitioner if you think you may need both therapy and pills.

Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MDs) who care for all kinds of mental health conditions. They’re trained to learn the cause of mental health problems. They may do talk therapy. But usually they focus on medicine. A psychiatrist can help you find medicine to feel better. And because they’re medical doctors, they can order tests to see if a physical illness is linked to your mental health.7

How a psychiatrist can help: Psychiatrists may be trained trained in newer treatments that can be used with medicine and therapy. Some examples are vagus nerve stimulation and transcranial stimulation. Those techniques send signals to parts of your brain that handle your mood. They can take care of depression and other mental health issues.8

Making the right choice

How do you choose the right therapist? You can look online. Or you can check who’s in your health plan’s network. Then, call or meet with the therapist to find out if you’re a good match.

Before you decide, ask yourself these questions:

What do I want? For example, you might want a therapist who can help you with your anxiety. Write down the ways that you think therapy might help you.

What’s the best therapist personality for me? Finding someone who’s a good listener is super important. Are they kind and respectful? You may want a therapist who is warm and welcoming. Or you might like someone serious who starts working right away. Think about the style that’s best for you.

What kind of experience does the therapist have? For example, if you have depression, you’ll want someone who has treated it before. “Or if you’re dealing with addiction, ask them if they’ve worked with that before,” says Bufka. Make sure they can care for your specific problems.

Does this therapist understand my background? Maybe you’re a person of color or you identify as LGBTQ. Or you might need someone who can relate to your religious beliefs. Ask the therapist if they have experience working with diverse groups, suggests Bufka. Or, search for a therapist who speaks your language.

What do I want therapy to do for me? For example, you may want to be more confident or worry less. Or you may want to focus on problems that are happening right now. Are you going through a hard time in your life? You might need a therapist who will work with you for a short time.

Am I OK with telehealth visits? One of the good things about telehealth is that you can do it at home. But you might prefer to meet in person. Think about what makes you comfortable. “The human link is an important part of therapy. Many people prefer that relationship in person,” says Bufka. “For some issues like social anxiety, in-person therapy may be better, because being with the therapist can help address some of the fear.”

Finding the right therapist can make a big difference in your life. After just 2 months of therapy, more than 4 out of 10 people saw their depression get better.9 If you’re thinking about therapy, you have options. And the more you understand those options, the simpler it will be to find a professional who can help you.

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health conditions: depression and anxiety. Published September 14, 2022. Accessed February 11, 2023.
  2. American Board of Clinical Social Work. What is clinical social work? Accessed February 12, 2023.
  3. Northeastern University. Counselors vs. therapists vs. psychologists: key differences. Published February 16, 2021. Accessed March 3, 2023.
  4. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Marriage and family therapist: the family-friendly mental health professionals. Accessed February 12, 2023.
  5. American Psychiatric Association. What is psychiatry? Published January 2023. Accessed March 2, 2023.
  6. Nursing Practice. What is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner? Accessed March 3, 2023.
  7. Northeastern University. Counselors vs. therapists vs. psychologists: key differences. Published February 16, 2021. Accessed March 3, 2023.
  8. Medical University of South Carolina. Brain stimulation therapy. Accessed March 3, 2023.
  9. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. The effects of psychotherapies for depression on response, remission, reliable change, and deterioration: a meta‐analysis. Published September 2021. Accessed March 3, 2023.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis— seek safety and get help right away. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

To reach a trained crisis counselor, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You may also text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support.

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