Seeking Mental Health Services for the First Time: What You REALLY Need to Know

Laura Horne
Laura Horne

As the pandemic continues, a recent report from the Healthy Minds Network found that half of students screened positive for depression and/or anxiety in Fall 2020. Many with pre-existing mental health challenges may be experiencing exacerbated symptoms, while others may be struggling with maintaining positive emotional wellbeing for the first time.

If so, they may not be sure if and how to seek help, including what kind of provider they may need, where to begin in looking for a provider, or what questions they should be asking prospective mental health providers. The following tips and recommendations may help:

When should I seek services?

If what you are experiencing feels like it’s more than a bad day, it may be time to consider talking to a professional. For example, if what you are experiencing is inhibiting your daily life, goals, or relationships, it is worth seeking a mental health check-up to find out if there are any strategies or resources available that can help. Learn more here.

What kind of provider do I need?

There are many options, and it’s important to know what they may be able to offer. A therapist may be able to help you manage triggers and symptoms. Primary care physicians may be able to rule out underlying medical conditions contributing to symptoms, as well. Psychiatrists and primary care physicians may also prescribe medication to help manage your mental health. 

Where can I find services?

If this is your first time seeking care, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Below are a few suggestions:

  • Word of mouth: Do you know of anyone who has sought care before? It might be worth asking for their recommendations. Alternatively, your primary care physician may be able to offer a referral.
  • Online: Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” tool offers detailed information about potential therapists in your area. Your insurance provider’s “Find a Doctor” tool and your school or workplace’s Employee Assistance Program may also be able to provide options.
  • Financial Assistance: Look for therapists who accept your insurance or consider community health centers, which often provide free or low-cost services. You may also consider looking into local universities or graduate programs, as some university clinics or centers are open to the public on a sliding scale or financial assistance program.

What should I ask prospective providers?

When you’ve found someone promising, request an informational phone call or a meet-and-greet before you dive into appointments. If it feels less intimidating, try sending an email to schedule a phone call. Here are a list of questions it may be worth asking:

  • Functional:
    • What is their expertise or speciality?
    • Will they accept your insurance (if applicable)?
    • Do they offer a sliding scale or financial assistance?
    • What licenses and certifications do they have? 
    • Are they affiliated with any prominent psychological associations (American Psychological Association, Eastern Psychological Association or the National Association of Social Workers, etc)?
    • Are they licensed in the state from which you are requesting care? (This is particularly helpful to ask when traveling or exploring telehealth options.)
    • Can they offer consistent weekly appointments and do they offer evening or weekend appointments?
  • Experience:
    • Have they treated other patients with similar concerns or issues?
    • What is their general approach for helping clients?
    • Is there evidence for that approach?
    • What can you expect during each session? 
    • How long will it take?
    • How will you both know when you’re done?
  • Other questions:
    • What other services does this provider commonly integrate well with, such as apps, text-based support, or support groups?
    • Does or would this provider recommend genetic testing or other types of evaluations to help set a treatment strategy?
    • Does this provider pair care with other forms of therapy?

Those are a lot of questions worth asking, so pick the ones most important to you.

Ideally, you will meet with a couple of providers and then pick the best fit. Most of all, it’s important that you can be open and honest with them and that they respect you. Finding a great provider who is a great fit for you is like trying to find any close confidant you trust. It might take a few tries to find the right one, so it’s important to go into this expecting that the first one may not work out.

Important note: Therapy is not a catch-all solution to mental health. In fact, therapy isn’t for everyone and isn’t the only solution. As you try different treatment options, stay patient with yourself and make a list of people you can trust, including professionals, to help guide and be there for you through the process.

In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text BRAVE to 741-741.