The decision to seek help from a mental health professional is a gutsy one- well done if you are taking the plunge. It can be a very positive and helpful experience. But, many people get confused when it comes to choosing a person to work with (of course, sometimes you don't have much of a choice if you are accessing professional help through a public health system). Don't worry, there are some useful issues to consider/questions to ask that can help you decide who is best for you. I have provided some general information about seeing a mental health professional. This article may not answer every question you have, but I have tried to include information that covers common questions, issues, and concerns that may come up when seeking help is being considered.
Some General Points
- You have the right to ‘shop around’ for a professional until you find someone that you feel comfortable with. Just because you have attended an initial consultation with someone, this does not mean you have to go on seeing that particular person. At times, there may be limited options, and your first preference may not be available where you live (e.g., wanting to see a male). However, you are always entitled to at least request what you want.
- Seeing a mental health professional, particularly for the first time, can be scary and nerve-racking. This is very normal. Don’t worry, you are no less of a man for feeling uneasy about taking this step. This usually passes, and people often say they are glad to have made the decision to seek help.
- Telling someone you are concerned about your mental health, and seeking professional help does not mean you automatically be locked-up. It is true that, at times, people require hospitalisation, but this move is reserved for severely unwell or unsafe people. Most countries have laws that permit that people are compulsorily placed in hospital. This action is generally taken only when the person concerned is at imminent risk to themselves or others.
- ‘He/she will be able to read my mind.’ Wouldn’t this be a fantastic skill to have, especially as a mental health professional. The truth is that no-one can read minds. Someone staring at you with a knowing look in their eye is not evidence for mind-reading ability. So, you are safe.
- Working with a mental health professional should feel like a collaborative process. What we mean by this is that you should feel like you are part of the sessions. For instance, you should be asked about what you want to happen, what your goals are for the sessions, and be regarded as an ‘expert’ in your own right (in that you know valuable things about yourself). The professional should regularly check with you that you are happy with what is being covered. You should feel you are being treated respectfully, and that you get any questions you have answered. If you feel like you are being talked down to, or not listened to, the situation is wrong.
- You should not feel like you are being forced into anything. Treatment should be optional. You should be made aware of the potential risks and benefits of receiving treatment, then allowed to make an informed decision. You should be aware that treatments, such as CBT, may involve you pushing yourself to talking on something that is challenging for you (e.g., makes you anxious). This means you may need to be prepared to do difficult tasks. However, this should never be overwhelming to the point where you fall to pieces. You should also have the option to back out of an activity if it becomes too much. Under special circumstances, people may be ordered (by law) to attend treatment. But, this is a rare occurrence, and applies to situations where significant risk to self or others is involved.
- You should not feel like you are being told what to do, or have important decisions made for you. The job of a mental health professional should not involve making decisions for you (again, there may be special circumstances for people who are required by law to undertake treatment). You should be given information that helps you make informed choices. You may ask for professional opinion. But, you should never feel forced. Often, mental health professionals can provide a method for decision making and problem-solving. This can be of real benefit for some people who have difficulties in this area.
Questions to Ask Before Seeing a Mental Health Professional
People often ask ‘what do I look for?’ when considering seeing a mental health professional. Here are some key questions to ask before attending an initial appointment.
- Tell me about your qualifications?
Qualifications for the basis of a mental health professionals skills. You should expect that a person has completed both undergraduate (e.g., bachelor degree) and postgraduate training (higher-level university degree).
- Are you registered/licensed?
It is very important that the person you see is registered or licensed to practice in their profession. This helps ensure a level of skill and accountability, and is intended to protect the public who use the services of a mental health professional. The person you see should be registered/licensed under a national or state-wide registration scheme. There should be an online register that you can search to confirm the person is indeed registered/licensed.
- Are you a member of a professional body?
On top on registration/licensure, the person should ideally be a member of a recognised professional body. Such organisations look to promote the profession, support high standards of practice, and promote/arrange activities that assist with education for the public, and ongoing training for a given profession.
- How many years experience do you have?
Training and qualifications are best combined with a number of years experience working in the field of mental health. Ideally, you should look to see someone who has a reasonable amount of experience. Having said this, each profession needs to be continuously train new people. This means you may see someone who is less experienced then you would like. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but these professionals should be receiving more support (through measures such as clinical supervision) than those who are senior in their chosen profession.
- Do you attend clinical supervision?
Clinical supervision is something that all mental health professionals should be engaged in. Supervision is a process by which individual professionals meet regularly with another person in that profession to discuss their work. Supervision can encompass a wide range of topics, ranging from a discussion of work being undertaken with people, through to professional development planning. Attending supervision is important to ensure that adequate support is received, issues are identified and resolved, and standards remain high.
- What sorts of people have you worked with?
You want to ensure that the person you see has experience in the areas in which you are experiencing difficulty. It is also helpful that a mental health professional has worked with a range of different people who have experienced a variety of different problems. This helps in the development of a wide-range of professional skills.
- What is your area of specialty?
It is common for a mental health professional to have a specific area of interest in their practice. This can be particularly helpful if you are experiencing issues that are less commonly treated, or for which there is limited expertise in your community.
- Are you involved with trainees or teaching?
You may want to think about whether the professional is involved in teaching and training of others. This can be a good way to keep your skills sharp and up-to-date. While this is not essential, you may feel this is a valuable extra activity for the professional to be involved in.
- Tell me about your professional development activities?
‘Ongoing professional development’ or ‘Continuous professional development’ are examples of terms used to describe the activities a professional takes part in to keep their skills current, and to learn new skills. The field of mental health is constantly progressing and evolving through ongoing research. Professionals need to keep up with this, and they should attend training/workshops/conferences each year.