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IBX Insights

Finding the Right Type of Mental Health Provider

A smiling woman talks to her therapist.

The demand for mental health services has skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the U.S. faces a chronic shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. As a result, 65 percent of mental health organizations reported having to cancel, reschedule, or turn away patients in 2020.

In order to fill the gap, some primary care offices have developed collaborative care models. With these models an affiliated psychologist or social worker provides therapy and patient management and consults with a psychiatrist on medications. Other health care providers are undertaking additional mental health training to meet patient needs.

Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Therapist: Which Do You Need?

Determining the right mental health provider can be confusing. Should you see a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a therapist? What exactly is the difference? The first difference is whether a professional specializes in prescribing medication, providing therapy, or both.

Prescribers and therapists are both mental health professionals whose expertise is the mind and the way it affects behavior and well-being. They often work together to diagnose and treat a patient. For example, a patient might see a psychiatrist who prescribes medication for depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or bipolar disorder, and also work with another mental health professional for psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counseling.

Prescribers 

Psychiatrists are physicians (M.D. or D.O.) who specialize in the assessment and treatment of the biological, psychological, and social factors that lead to behavioral health conditions. A psychiatrist may prescribe medication and may provide therapy as well. Often, the psychiatrist prescribes medication and acts as the leader of a treatment team that may include other professionals who provide therapy.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners are another kind of professional that can prescribe medication for behavioral health conditions. They have a master’s of science in nursing or doctor of nursing practice degree with specialized focus on psychiatry. They provide diagnosis and therapy for mental health conditions and can prescribe medications independently or under the supervision of a medical doctor, depending on the state.

Therapists 

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy, or just “therapy”) helps people deal with various mental illnesses and emotional difficulties. Therapy can help eliminate or control troubling symptoms so a person can function better. Depending on the issue, therapy can be short-term (a few sessions), or long-term (months or years). Psychotherapy is often used in combination with medication to treat mental health conditions. Therapy can be provided by several different kinds of professionals:

Psychologists have a doctoral degree in psychology and know how to evaluate and treat behavioral health disorders, but generally are not licensed to prescribe medication. In order to receive their license, psychologists also complete an internship with specific training in behavioral therapy and other methods of treatment. Once licensed, a psychologist is qualified to provide psychotherapy, counseling, psychological testing, and mental health disorder treatment. 

Master’s level professionals 

Licensed clinical social workers have a master’s or doctoral degree in social work and also complete two years of postgraduate supervised clinical work to become licensed. They are trained to evaluate and treat mental health issues, provide individual and group counseling, and like other therapists have varied specializations.

Licensed professional counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists are qualified to provide counseling or psychotherapy for mental health treatment. They have a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field, plus at least two years of postgraduate training working alongside a qualified mental health professional.

This list is not exhaustive and requirements often vary by state. It’s also important to note that your behavioral health is often best managed by a team that communicates well and uses each area of expertise to take care of you as a whole.

Getting Started

Your primary care provider is a great place to start discussing your mental health concerns. They are well-equipped to assess mental health needs and prescribe necessary medications, or to refer you to an appropriate specialist for counseling or psychotherapy.

In addition, many Employee Assistance Programs can be a source of mental health services to help employees with emotional and substance use issues, interpersonal relationships, legal problems, or financial difficulties. These services might be delivered in person, by telephone, or via online platforms.

There are also companies available, like Quartet*, that use specialized technology to help people more easily find and access care that’s right for them. Quartet does not provide direct mental health care. It works with health plans, like Independence Blue Cross, to match members with licensed mental health providers and programs that meet their needs and preferences, and accept their health insurance.

In summary, there are different types of support available to people seeking mental and behavioral support, and there are professionals skilled in getting you to the right provider. It all begins with that first call.

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

*Quartet is an independent company.
IBX Insights Team

The IBX Insights Team is here to provide tips on using your health insurance and living a healthy life.