The following symptoms might be signs of an underlying mental health condition:
- thoughts of hurting yourself or others
- frequent or persistent feelings of sadness, anger, fear, worry, or anxiety
- frequent emotional outbursts or mood swings
- confusion or unexplained memory loss
- delusions or hallucinations
- intense fear or anxiety about weight gain
- dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
- unexplained changes in school or work performance
- inability to cope with daily activities or challenges
- withdrawal from social activities or relationships
- defiance of authority, truancy, theft, or vandalism
- substance abuse, including alcoholism or use of illegal drugs
- unexplained physical ailments
If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, get help right away. If you have other symptoms on this list, make an appointment with your doctor. Once they’ve ruled out a physical basis for your symptoms, they may refer you to a mental health specialist and other resources.
Are you making plans to hurt yourself or another person? That’s a mental health emergency. Go to a hospital emergency department or contact your local emergency services right away. Dial 911 for immediate emergency help.
Suicide prevention hotlines
Have you been thinking about hurting yourself? Consider contacting a suicide prevention hotline. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. It offers 24/7 support.
There are many types of healthcare providers who diagnose and treat mental illness. If you suspect you might have a mental health condition or need mental health support, make an appointment with your primary physician or a nurse practitioner. They can help you determine what type of provider you should see. In many cases, they can also provide a referral.
For example, they might recommend seeing one or more of the healthcare providers below.
Providers who prescribe medicine
A therapist can help diagnose and treat mental health conditions. There are many different types of therapists, including:
- clinical counselors
Therapists often specialize in certain areas, such as addiction or child behavioral issues.
Only some types of therapists prescribe medications. To prescribe medications, they need to be either a physician or nurse practitioner. In some cases, you may also see a physician’s assistant or a doctor of osteopathic medicine.
If your doctor suspects you have a mental health condition that requires medication, they might refer you to a psychiatrist. They often diagnose and treat conditions such as:
- anxiety disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- bipolar disorder
Prescribing medications is often their primary approach to providing treatment. Many psychiatrists don’t offer counseling themselves. Instead, many work with a psychologist or other mental health profession who can provide counseling.
Nurse psychotherapists generally diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders. They may also treat other health conditions.
Nurse psychotherapists have an advanced nursing degree. They are trained as clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners. Clinical nurse specialists can’t prescribe medications in most states. However, nurse practitioners can. They often use a combination of medications and counseling to treat patients.
If your doctor thinks you might benefit from therapy, they might refer you to a psychologist. Psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat mental health conditions and challenges, such as:
- anxiety disorders
- eating disorders
- learning difficulties
- relationship problems
- substance abuse
Psychologists are also trained to give psychological tests. For example, they might administer an IQ test or personality test.
A psychologist can potentially help you learn to manage your symptoms through counseling or other forms of therapy. In some states (Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico), they can prescribe medicine. However, when they can’t, psychologists can work with other healthcare providers who can prescribe medications.
Providers who can’t prescribe medicine
Marital and family therapist
Marital and family therapists are trained in psychotherapy and family systems. They often treat individuals, couples, and families who are coping with marital problems or child-parent problems.
Marital and family therapists aren’t licensed to prescribe medication. However, they often work with healthcare providers who can prescribe medications.
Peer specialists are people who’ve personally experienced and recovered from mental health challenges. They provide support to others who are going through similar experiences. For example, they may help people recover from substance abuse, psychological trauma, or other mental health challenges.
Peer specialists act as role models and sources of support. They share their personal experiences of recovery to give hope and guidance to others. They can also help people set goals and develop strategies to move forward in their recovery. Some peer specialists work for organizations as paid employees. Others offer their services as volunteers.
Peer specialists can’t prescribe medications because they aren’t clinical professionals.
Licensed professional counselor
Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) are qualified to provide individual and group counseling. They can have many titles, based on the particular areas they focus on. For example, some LPCs provide marriage and family therapy.
LPCs can’t prescribe medication because they’re not licensed to do so.
Mental health counselor
A mental health counselor is trained to diagnose and treat people coping with difficult life experiences, such as:
- relationship problems
- mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
Mental health counselors provide counseling on an individual or group basis. Some work in private practice. Others work for hospitals, residential treatment centers, or other agencies.
Mental health counselors can’t provide medications because they’re not equipped with a license. However, many work with healthcare providers who can prescribe medications when needed.
Alcohol and drug abuse counselor
Alcohol and drug abuse counselors are trained to treat people with alcohol and drug addictions. If you’ve been abusing alcohol or drugs, they can help guide you on the path of sobriety. For example, they can potentially help you learn to:
- modify your behavior
- avoid triggers
- manage withdrawal symptoms
Alcohol and drug abuse counselors can’t prescribe medications. If they think you might benefit from medications, they might advise you to talk to your family doctor or nurse practitioner.
VA-certified counselors have been trained by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They offer counseling to military veterans. Many veterans return from service with injuries or stress-related illnesses. For example, you might come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’re a veteran, a VA-certified counselor can help you:
- learn to manage mental health conditions
- transition from military life to civilian life
- cope with negative emotions, such as grief or guilt
VA-certified counselors can’t prescribe medication. If they think you might need medication, they may encourage you to talk to your family doctor, nurse practitioner, or psychiatrist.
A pastoral counselor is a religious counselor who is trained to provide counseling. For example, some priests, rabbis, imams, and ministers are trained counselors. They typically have a postgraduate degree. They often combine psychological methods with religious training to promote psycho-spiritual healing.
Spirituality is an important part of recovery for some people. If your religious beliefs are a pivotal part of your identity, you might find pastoral counseling helpful.
Pastoral counselors can’t prescribe medication. However, some develop professional relationships with healthcare providers who can prescribe medications when needed.
Clinical social workers are professional therapists who hold a master’s degree in social work. They’re trained to provide individual and group counseling. They often work in hospitals, private practices, or clinics. Sometimes they work with people in their homes or schools.
Clinical social workers can’t prescribe medication.
If you start to experience symptoms of a mental health condition, don’t wait for them to get worse. Instead, reach out for help. To start, make an appointment with your family doctor or nurse practitioner. They can refer you to a specialist.
Keep in mind that it can sometimes be challenging to find a therapist who meets your needs. You might need to connect with more than one therapist before you find the right fit.
Consider these factors
Before you look for a therapist, you’ll want to know the answer to these questions:
- What type of a mental health support are you looking for?
- Are you looking for a healthcare provider who can offer therapy?
- Are you looking for someone who can prescribe medication?
- Are you looking for both medication and therapy?
Contact your insurance provider
If you have health insurance, call your insurance provider to learn if they cover mental health services. If they do, ask for the contact information of local service providers who accept your insurance plan. If you need support for a specific condition, ask for providers who treat that condition.
Other questions that you should ask your insurance provider include:
- Are all diagnoses and services covered?
- What are the copay and deductible amounts for these services?
- Can you make a direct appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist? Or do you need to see a primary care physician or nurse practitioner first for a referral?
It’s always a good idea to ask for the names and contact information of multiple providers. The first provider you try might not be the right fit for you.
Look for therapists online
Your family doctor, nurse practitioner, and insurance provider can help you find a therapist in your area. You can also look for therapists online. For example, consider using these databases:
- American Psychiatric Association: Find a Psychiatrist
- American Psychological Association: Psychologist Locator
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Find a Therapist
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: Find a Pro
- International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation: Find Help
- SAMHSA: Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
- Veterans Affairs: VA Certified Counselors
Schedule an appointment
It’s time to book an appointment. If you’re reluctant to make the call, you can ask a friend or family member to call on your behalf. A few things to do:
- If it’s your first time visiting a therapist, let them know that. They may want to schedule a longer appointment to provide more time for introductions and diagnosis.
- If the first available appointment time is far in the future, take that appointment time but ask to be put on a waiting list. If another patient cancels, you might get an earlier appointment. You can also call other therapists to learn if you can get an earlier appointment with them.
- While you wait for your appointment, consider looking for other sources of support. For example, you might be able to find a support group in your area. If you’re a member of a religious community, you might be able to get support from a pastoral counselor. Your school or workplace might also offer counseling services.
If you’re in a crisis and need immediate help, go to a hospital emergency department or call 911.
Find the right fit
Once you’ve met with a therapist, it’s time to reflect on whether they’re the right fit for you. Here are some important things to consider:
- How much education and professional experience do they have? Have they worked with other people going through similar experiences or coping with a similar diagnosis? They should be qualified to provide the services that they’re offering. Most of the providers discussed previously should have at least a master’s degree, or in the case of psychologists, a doctoral degree.
- Do you feel comfortable with them? What “vibe” do you get from them? The personal questions that your therapist asks you might make you uncomfortable sometimes, but that person shouldn’t make you feel uneasy. You should feel like they’re on your side.
- Do they understand and respect your cultural background and identify? Are they willing to learn more about your background and beliefs? Consider following NAMI’s tips for finding culturally competent care.
- What processes does the therapist expect you to follow to establish mental health goals and evaluate your progress? What kind of improvements can you expect to see? You may be more comfortable with one approach to providing care over another.
- How often will you meet? How hard will it be to get an appointment? Can you contact the therapist by phone or email between appointments? If you can’t see or talk to them as often as you need, another service provider might be better suited to you.
- Can you afford their services? If you’re concerned about your ability to pay for appointments or meet your insurance copays or deductibles, bring it up with your therapist when you first meet them. Ask if you can pay on a sliding scale or at a discounted price. Doctors and therapists often prefer to prepare for potential financial challenges in advance because it’s important to continue treatment without interruption.
If you feel uncomfortable with the first therapist that you visit, move on to the next one. It’s not enough for them to be a qualified professional. You need to work well together. Developing a trusting relationship is critical to meeting your long-term treatment needs.
Distance therapy can be conducted by voice, text, chat, video, or email. Some therapists offer distance therapy to their patients when they’re out of town. Others offer distance therapy as a stand-alone service. To learn more about distance counseling, visit the American Distance Counseling Association.
Many hotlines, online information services, mobile apps, and even video games are available to help people cope with mental illness.
Many organizations run hotlines and online services to provide mental health support. These are just a few of the hotlines and online services that are available:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline offers phone support to people experiencing domestic violence.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers phone support to people in emotional distress.
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline provides treatment referrals and information support to people coping with substance abuse or other mental health conditions.
- Veterans Crisis Line provides support to veterans and their loved ones.
An online search will turn up more services in your area.
A growing number of mobile apps are available to help people cope with mental illness. Some apps facilitate communication with therapists. Others offer links to peer support. Still others provide educational information or tools to promote good mental health.
You shouldn’t use mobile apps as a replacement for your doctor or therapist’s prescribed treatment plan. But some apps might make a helpful addition to your larger treatment plan.
- Breathe2Relax is a portable stress management tool. It provides detailed information on how stress affects the body. It also helps users learn how to manage stress using a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. It’s available for free on iOS and Android devices.
- IntelliCare is designed to help people manage depression and anxiety. The IntelliCare Hub app and related mini apps are available for free on Android devices.
- MindShift is designed to help youth gain insight into anxiety disorders. It provides information about generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and panic attacks. It also provides tips for developing basic coping strategies.
- PTSD Coach was designed for veterans and military service members who have PTSD. It provides information about PTSD, including treatment and management strategies. It also includes a self-assessment tool. It’s available for free on iOS and Android devices.
- SAM: Self Help for Anxiety Management provides information about managing anxiety. It’s available for free on iOS and Android devices
- TalkSpace seeks to make therapy more accessible. It connects users to licensed therapists, using a messaging platform. It also provides access to public therapy forums. It’s free to download on iOS and Android devices.
- Equanimity is a meditation app. It may help you develop a stress-relieving meditation practice. It’s available to download for $4.99 on iOS devices
- Lantern offers sessions designed to boost emotional well-being. It’s a subscription-based service. (Email customer support for current pricing.) Although the service is web-based, you can also download a free supplemental app for iOS devices.
- Worry Watch is designed to help users document and manage experiences with chronic worry, anticipatory anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder. It’s available on iOS for $1.99.
For information about other mental health apps, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Video game therapy
Video gaming is a popular leisure activity. Certain doctors also use video games for therapeutic purposes. In some cases, immersing yourself in virtual worlds might help you take a break from everyday anxieties.