Finding the Right Mental Health Care Specialist

Finding the right mental health professional for yourself or your loved one can be a daunting task. How do you find the one that is the right fit for you?   Here are some suggestions to assist you in your search:

  • Look to your trusted primary care physician as an educator, resource and referral source.
  •  Ask lots of questions!
  •  Ask if this professional has specific experience with the particular issues impacting on you and your loved one.

Psychiatrist, psychopharmacologist, psychologist, clinical social worker, mental health practitioner (mental health counselor, marriage & family therapist, psychoanalyst and creative arts therapist) – how do I know which one I need?

A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor (M.D.) who has completed medical school and has chosen psychiatry as their specialty.  A child psychiatrist is a psychiatrist who has done their rotation in child psychiatry and has elected to work with children and adolescents.  Unfortunately, good child psychiatrists are in short supply.  A psychiatrist can write prescriptions.  They typically see clients monthly, primarily for medication management.

A psychopharmacologist is an M.D. psychiatrist, with all of the credentials and training of a psychiatrist.  However, they have gone on to specialize in psychopharmacology – the study of medication used to treat psychiatric illnesses.

A psychologist has a Ph.D. (doctorate) in psychology.  Clinical psychologists specialize in psychiatric disorders.  Psychologists cannot write prescriptions.  Psychologists usually see clients weekly or more for therapy.

A clinical social worker (LCSW) is a social worker with a Masters Degree in social work, who has a minimum of 3 years post graduate experience, specialized training in clinical (psychiatric) disorders.  Social workers cannot write prescriptions.

Social workers helps individuals, families, and groups change behaviors, emotions, attitudes, relationships, and social conditions to restore and enhance their capacity to meet their personal and social needs. Social workers are trained to provide a variety of services, ranging from psychotherapy to the administration of health and welfare programs. They work with human development and behavior, including the social, economic, and cultural systems in which people function.  Social workers deal with a wide variety of long and short-term mental, emotional, behavioral and environmental conditions, including: mental illnesses and emotional disturbances, marital and family difficulties adjustment problems related to acute and chronic illnesses alcohol and substance abuse, behavioral and learning disorders of children and adolescents, community problems and social issues. (

Mental health practitioners include mental health counselors, marriage & family therapists, psychoanalysts and creative arts therapists and have Masters Degrees. Mental health practitioners cannot write prescriptions.  Specifically:

Mental health counselors are trained in counseling and psychotherapy to treat individuals with mental and emotional disorders and other behavioral challenges. Mental health counselors address mental health, human relationship, education and career concerns within ethical, developmental, preventive and treatment contexts. Mental health counselors demonstrate a concern for the short-term and long-term well-being of individuals, couples, families, groups and organizations. (

Marriage & family therapists are trained in individual psychotherapy and family systems to assess and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, and address an array of relationship issues within the context of marital/couple, family and various relational systems. (

Psychoanalysts may use verbal and non-verbal communications to uncover the unconscious blocks that may be affecting the individual’s behavior and personality. Psychoanalysts treat a range of conditions including anxiety, depression and phobias. (

Creative arts therapists are trained in psychotherapy and in specific arts disciplines, which may include dance/movement therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy and art therapy. They have training in areas that include clinical practice and human development as well as the use of the creative arts to provide appropriate services, and multicultural and artistic traditions. (

For good specialists in any discipline, request referrals from trusted primary care physicians.  For quality psychiatric referrals, Google nearby teaching hospitals with out-patient clinics and search for professionals who specialize in what ails you, are conveniently located and accept your insurance.  Teaching doctors, by definition, tend to be adept at explaining clearly and are typically up-to-date on research and new medications.

Which professional do I need?

Ultimately, connection is much more important than credentialing or educational degrees.  If you’re searching for someone to work with your child or adolescent, you want someone who connects with your child, invites family work and is knowledgeable about the specific mental health issues involved.  Something is working if your loved one looks forward to their sessions and you observe improved communication and life function.  That is the goal.  If he or she is reluctant or refuses to go, find out why. Work with them to find someone else.  If the individual has a mental illness that is managed with medication, a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist should be on the team. Encourage collaboration with all members of the support network and treating professionals.

How can I tell if this mental health specialist is a fraud?

 Steer clear of practitioners who imply that other professionals are no good and that only they can help you.  Avoid practitioners who sell their own medications/home remedies, who promise results, or who pressure you to sign up and pay in advance for a series of appointments.

When do I know it’s time to get a second opinion?

When you’re wondering if it’s time to get a second opinion.

Tips for practitioners:

  • Be a good diagnostician.
  • Get lots of practical clinical experience.
  • Read, study and stay up-to-date.  [Teaching professionals are especially good  because they are accustomed to explaining things clearly.]
  • Insist on regular appropriate medical checkups. If an individual is on medication, refer for appropriate blood work (e.g. to monitor medication levels, white blood cell counts, thyroid function.)
  • Maintain good standing with your licensing board and keep your liability insurance up-to-date.  (Clients can check on the Internet Web page of your State licensing board for verification.)
  • Welcome second opinions.
  • Welcome family participation and respect parents/caregivers as keys in the support network.
  • Listens really really well.
  • Hang art created by people with mental illnesses in your offices, play music composed by people with mental health issues in the waiting room (e.g. Mozart, Beethoven, Springsteen, Sting, James Taylor) and keep a lending library of helpful books for clients to borrow or keep.

The following websites will assist you in your search for affordable, reliable care:

  • lists a myriad of mental health professionals.  Go to the Find a Therapist tab and begin your search for someone who accepts your insurance and looks like a good fit.  Searches can be narrowed by zip code.
  • Medicaid 1-800-541-2831.  New York State Department of health Medicaid Page. care/medicaid/program/contact.htm
  • Medicare 1-800-633-4227.
  • Obamacare:  1-800-318-2596. is an informational site that explains Obama Care.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) requires group health plans and health insurance issuers to ensure that financial requirements (such as co-pays, deductibles) and treatment limitations (such as visit limits) applicable to mental health or substance use disorder (MH/SUD) benefits are no more restrictive than the predominant requirements or limitations applied to substantially all medical/surgical benefits.  MHPAEA supplements prior provisions under the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 (MHPA), which required parity with respect to aggregate lifetime and annual dollar limits for mental health benefits.  For more information google the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996.