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Whayne Herriford: How to choose a mental health provider; the test is — are your needs being met?

It is possible to receive support for a mental health challenge from anyone who has skills at listening and problem-solving and has empathy. This could be a teacher, a religious staff person or another professional whom you encounter in some setting. Here however, I will be describing mental health professionals who are licensed to provide this service.

There are several major (and important) differences between someone who has been licensed and someone who has not:

• Licensed professionals have, at a minimum, at least a masters’ level education with a specialized academic curriculum that has prepared them to provide mental health support.

• To be licensed, you must also meet certain performance criterion that generally include working under the supervision of someone else for a significant period of time. Maintenance of the license also requires continuing education, compliance with various legal and ethical standards and provides a mechanism for raising concerns about a provider’s performance or conduct.

• Licensed professionals have specific training in the diagnosis of mental health conditions consistent with the DSM-5.

• Licensed professionals also have training in one or more treatment approaches to help someone address an identified mental health diagnosis.

• And finally — and in some cases most importantly — a licensed professional is able to bill a third party for payment for services.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors and have the highest level of formal education and training. They usually work in inpatient settings and private practices. Because they are physicians, they are the only licensed mental health professionals who can prescribe medications.

(In NKY because there aren’t a lot of psychiatrists, there are also nurse practitioners working under a psychiatrist’s direction who prescribe medications. Other licensed physicians can also prescribe medications.) Some psychiatrists focus on particular types of issues (addiction, children’s issues, etc.) and some work mostly on medication management.

Psychologist is a term usually used for someone who has a doctorate usually a PhD or a PsyD. In both cases the education is post-graduate, but PhD programs often emphasize more research or teaching than PsyD programs which emphasize more clinical practice. PhD’s often become professors who teach others, though many of them practice with clients. PhD’s also are often able to administer certain assessments (IQ, personality assessments, etc.) that master’s level providers do not provide.

Master’s level professionals who are licensed to provide mental health services in Kentucky fall primarily into three groups: social workers, counselors and marriage and family therapists. These individuals are the majority of service providers for individual and group treatment. They can work within organizations (such as a community mental health center) or in private practice.

You can check to see if someone has a current license in Kentucky here. You can also search for a therapist by location, specialty or another criterion here. Additionally, your insurance provider’s web site usually has a separate section for Behavioral Health.

The two most important predictors of success between a client and a mental health provider are the client’s willingness to engage followed by the relationship they have with the provider.

When you are looking for a mental health provider it’s important that you feel comfortable and that you trust them enough to be able to share your concerns honestly and listen to their thoughts and reactions – even if you don’t like what you’re hearing. Mental health professionals are trained to be good listeners and to be able to repeat back what they’re hearing either for clarification or for you to understand how the things you’re saying or doing affect others.

When deciding whether a provider is a good fit, here are some questions you can use:

• Are they listening to you and do you feel heard?

• Are they asking you questions? In the first several sessions they should be asking a lot of questions to get to know you and understand your needs?

• Did they ask you what your goals are from therapy?

• Do the things they are saying to you make sense to you? Do you feel like they understand what your needs are?

• Do you know what it will cost you for the services?

If you don’t feel your needs are met it’s important to either discuss this with your provider or find someone else. It isn’t anyone’s fault when this happens: some counselors will just connect better with you than others. The important part of the relationship is to be willing to share and confide with them – otherwise you will probably not have the best outcome possible.

Whayne Herriford, MS, LPCC is a licensed professional clinical counselor in the state of Kentucky and practices in both NKY and Cincinnati. This column is intended to provide general information to people about mental health-related issues and is not for diagnostic or treatment purposes. You should always consult with a mental health professional when you have concerns about thoughts or feelings.

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