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How to choose a mental health professional: Understanding Your Options

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Disclaimer – this blog is for education and information purposes only. It does not constitute individual advice. The information contained in this post may not be applicable or appropriate for everyone. If you need support, consider seeking individualised support from a qualified health professional.

Choosing someone to support you with your mental health can be a difficult decision. Whether this is for ongoing therapy or an assessment, the connection and rapport that you have with your mental health worker is an integral component of treatment. It is important to consider the type of mental health professional you work with, as well as their qualifications, to ensure you are receiving the most suitable treatment.

What the research says

One of the main considerations when selecting a psychologist is the relationship and rapport you are able to build with them. Research conducted by the American Psychological Association (2019) found that the rapport with your psychologist is one of the most important factors which influences treatment outcomes. Having good rapport with your psychologist is important when setting and working towards goals in therapy. A good relationship supports ease of conversation and facilitates open communication. If you feel that the focus of treatment needs adjusting, a strong rapport enables ease of conversation about these adjustments. Therefore, the therapeutic relationship is an important foundation in treatment. 

It is important to mention that all people, including psychologists, come from varying cultural backgrounds that may influence who they are and how they practice. This naturally influences compatibility between practitioners and clients and does not necessarily reflect incompetence on the psychologist’s part. However, if you find yourself struggling to open up, it may be beneficial to discuss this with your Psychologist or seek out other options. 

Psychologist, Counsellor, or Psychotherapist?

Mental health workers perform in a number of different ways, with different educational backgrounds, focuses, and means of accomplishing their therapeutic goals. Three main areas of practice include psychology, counselling, and psychotherapy. 

  • Psychologist: A psychologist’s practice stems from evidence-based methods and aims to diagnose and treat clients. They work to identify issues on a conscious and subconscious level. Psychologists are able to diagnose and treat varying mental health disorders and mainly work on a long-term basis, with the exception of assessments. 
  • Psychotherapist: Psychotherapists focus more specifically on the subconscious. These techniques were founded by a well-known psychologist, Sigmund Freud, whose work became prevalent in the 1920s. In this approach, psychotherapists aim to assist their clients through analysing their subconscious to resolve past trauma and improve their wellbeing. 
  • Counsellor: Counsellors are mainly focused on what is called ‘talk therapy’. A counsellor’s focus is primarily on providing a confidential space for clients to share their thoughts and feelings. This is usually used as a short- term approach to addressing relatively straightforward issues. 

Regulated and unregulated professions

When choosing a mental health professional, it is important to understand the difference between regulated and unregulated professions. By law, in order to use the title “psychologist”, a mental health professional must complete a minimum of 6 years of approved training, and be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia. Psychologists are recognised experts in areas of human behaviour and their practice must be founded in evidence-based practice. However, use of unregulated titles such as “counsellors” or “psychotherapists” may be used by any individual regardless of their level of training. There is no legislation in Australia that requires a person using these titles to have any base level of qualifications or experience (BetterHealth Channel, 2022). The counselling profession is self-regulated. Counsellors or psychotherapists with a base level of qualifications may choose to register with their respective professional association. If you do choose to access support from an unregulated mental health practitioner, choosing someone who is voluntarily registered with one of the professional associations may provide you with an added level of assurance.

Registered Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist?

Both registered and clinical psychologists have completed a minimum of six years of training and supervised practice; and are recognised as having a high level of training in psychological assessment and treatment. In private practice both types of psychologists tend to have specific presentations and client groups they focus on. Clinical psychologists undergo an additional period of supervised practice in order to use the title of clinical psychologist. Clinical psychologists, as the name suggests, tend to focus on more clinically complex mental health presentations. For example dealing with psychiatric patients, those who are actively suicidal, or those presentations which are difficult to diagnose and treat. It’s important to keep in mind that whether the psychologist is a good fit for your needs is multi-faceted and the type of psychologist should form just one part of your decision making.

What to consider when making a decision

Many factors can go into deciding to work with a mental health professional. Below are four things to consider when making this choice.

Rapport: The relationship you have with your mental health professional is crucial to the treatment’s effectiveness. So it is important to choose someone you feel at ease talking to. As you’re considering options for different mental health professionals, ask yourself, can I imagine sitting across from this person and opening up? Do I think I’ll feel comfortable around them? 

Your needs: psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors all cater to different individual needs. Counsellors may be helpful when you have short term issues, such as situational stress that you’d like to discuss (Stephens, 2023). Many Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers provide access to counsellors. However, more persistent or long-term issues such as burnout, anxiety or depression may be better resolved by a psychologist. Psychotherapists, as mentioned previously, focus on the inner workings of the individual and will tend to pay attention to past issues, trauma and the subconscious.

Qualifications: professionals that use an unregulated title (such as counsellor or psychotherapist) may offer a more affordable option. However, it is important to keep in mind that their level of training may vary. Professionals with a protected title such as a “psychologist” have a minimum level of training and are required to provide evidence-based interventions.

Experience: Psychologists have a variety of experiences and areas of practice that they focus on. The APA (2019) suggests some helpful questions to ask to determine whether a psychologist is a good fit. Questions such as: how many years have they been practising? Do they have experience treating clients with the same or similar issues that you’re facing? Do they typically work with clients who are similar to you? And, what is their therapeutic approach and has it been shown to be helpful for your particular issue?

In summary…

Overall, making the choice to start seeing a mental health professional can be overwhelming. It is important to understand the difference between a psychologist, psychotherapist, and counsellor, so you can find someone that best suits your needs. Asking questions is always a good place to start to make sure you have a mental health professional that understands your goals, that you connect well with, and is well trained. That’s why I offer a free 15 minute consultation to discuss your needs and make sure the service is the right fit for you.

References

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