Mind Your Mind: What type of mental health professional is right for you?

Navigating the mental health system can be disorientating, frustrating and discouraging. A lot of the times, people don’t know where to start. This article outlines the different types of mental health professionals, in hope of detangling some of the strings associated with an already messy system.

General practitioners (GP), also known as primary care physicians or family doctors, are often the first point of contact. GP’s are trained to recognize common symptoms of mental illness and can prescribe medications, but they do not typically provide counselling. If your mental health is deteriorating, seeing a GP is a first recommended step.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are medical doctors who specialize in treating mental health disorders. They are some of the most qualified experts in the field. They assess individuals, diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe medications. They typically do not provide long-term psychotherapy, instead providing medication management to their patients. In order to see a psychiatrist in Canada, you need a referral from a GP.

Wait times vary depending on where you live and the severity of your concerns so unfortunately, people often have to wait months before seeing a psychiatrist. It’s also important to note that not everyone with a mental health issue needs to see a psychiatrist or take medication; many people manage their conditions by getting medication from their GP as needed, undertaking lifestyle changes or seeking counselling.

Mental health nurses, or registered psychiatric nurses, also specialize in mental health care. They often work in a team and their roles vary depending on the environment. Some nurses work in psychiatric wards and residential treatment centres, others in family practices. Regardless, psychiatric nurses are qualified in crisis intervention, assessment and administration of medications. If you’re ever in crisis and go to the hospital, you will most likely be evaluated by a psychiatric nurse first.

Next case managers, social workers, mental health workers and occupational therapists are all individuals who also work in the field. They work in all sorts of clinical settings and provide all sorts of services. They help in areas such as school, finances and housing. Mostly, their task is to support their clients and assist them in accessing timely, efficient and client-centred care.

I also want to discuss the two terms that people use interchangeably: counselling and psychotherapy. According to the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, there is a slight difference between the two. People seeking psychotherapy are diagnosed with a mental illness and the therapy itself is in-depth and focuses on the “self.” Counselling, on the other hand, is more focused on resolving problems that are presently happening in the person’s life, such as a breakup, performance anxiety and going away to school.

Some people will see a counsellor once or twice, and others will choose to be in therapy for years. There’s no one-size fits all and when it comes to choosing a therapist, it’s helpful to know the differences between professionals, since “therapist” or “clinician” are umbrella terms. Registered psychologists, social workers, registered clinical counsellors as well as licensed marriage and family therapists are all individuals that fall under the latter term, and who are qualified to provide psychotherapy or counselling.

The designation and letters following someone’s name does not matter at all. What matters is that the person you’re seeing is providing you with adequate support or treatment. This means that the person you’re seeing should provide evidence-based or empirically supported treatments and use therapeutic approaches and models that are tailored to your needs. If you’re meeting with a new therapist, don’t hesitate to ask questions regarding their background and qualifications. Finally, the most important part is getting along with your therapist! You will intuitively know if you’re a good “fit.”

Accessing professional help for your mental health can be a scary process. If you’re not ready to reach out to a professional, I encourage you to turn to other supports. Friends, family members and peers are all good options. Why not join a support group, or connect with a friend? Sometimes, the initial step is the hardest, but also the most important one.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.