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How to choose a Mental Health Professional that is right for you

Updated: May 28, 2019

At some time in our lives, each of us may feel overwhelmed and may need help dealing with our problems. According to the Mental Health Council of Australia, almost half the population experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime. They may need help dealing with feelings and problems that seem beyond their control — problems with a marriage or relationship, a family situation or dealing with losing a job, the death of a loved one, depression, stress, burnout or trauma. Those losses and stresses of daily living can at times be significantly debilitating. Sometimes we need outside help from a trained, licensed professional in order to work through these problems. Through therapy, psychologists and mental health accredited social workers help millions of Australians of all ages live healthier, more productive lives.

Consider therapy if...

You feel an overwhelming and prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness, and your problems do not seem to get better despite your efforts and help from family and friends. You are finding it difficult to carry out everyday activities: for example, you are unable to concentrate on assignments at work, and your job performance is suffering as a result. You worry excessively, expect the worst or are constantly on edge. Your actions are harmful to yourself or to others: for instance, you are drinking too much alcohol, abusing drugs or becoming overly argumentative and aggressive.

What is a Mental Health Therapist?

Mental Health Therapists fall into a few different categories:

1. Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists have skills in the following areas:

Psychological assessment and diagnosis

Clinical psychologists have training in the assessment and diagnosis of major mental illnesses and psychological problems.Through their training, clinical therapists are qualified to provide expert opinion in clinical and compensation areas.


Clinical psychologists are trained in the delivery of a range of techniques and therapies with demonstrated effectiveness in treating mental health disorders. They hold particular skills for applying psychological theory and scientific research to solve complex clinical psychology problems requiring individually tailored interventions.

Research, teaching and evaluation

Research, teaching and evaluation are all integral to the role of clinical psychologists. Research is often conducted on prevention, diagnosis, assessment and treatment. Clinical psychologists are involved in the design and implementation of treatment strategies in various settings (such as primary care, psychiatric and rehabilitation) and in the subsequent evaluation of treatment outcomes.

Clinical Psychologists are endorsed by the Australian Health Regulation Authority and can provide rebate-able services for Medicare, DVA,Workcover organisations, private health funds and insurance companies.

2. Psychologists

Psychologists who specialize in psychotherapy and other forms of psychological treatment are highly trained professionals with expertise in the areas of human behaviour, mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment, and behaviour change. Psychologists work with individuals, couples and families to change their feelings and attitudes and help them develop healthier, more effective patterns of behaviour.

Psychologists apply scientifically validated procedures to help people change their thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Psychologists can be registered providers with Medicare Australia, DVA, private health funds and insurance companies.

3. Accredited Mental Health Social Workers

Accredited Mental Health Social Workers are registered providers with Medicare Australia. They have been assessed on behalf of the Commonwealth Government by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) as having specialist mental health expertise.

Accredited Mental Health Social Workers help individuals to resolve their presenting psychological problems, the associated social and other environmental problems, and improve their quality of life. This may involve family as well as individual counselling, and group therapy. Social workers recognise the broader implications of an individual having a mental illness and the impact on friends, family, work and education.

4. Counsellors and Hypnotherapists

Counsellors and Hypnotherapists can be trained in many different ways.  These professions are not regulated which means there can be great variability in the type and amount of training that these professionals receive.  

There are a number of professional organisations they can be members of that will guarantee to the consumer a minimum level of training and competency.  It is a good idea to ask what professional affilitations the professional has and then check with that organisation to make an informed decision about whether you think these will meet your needs.  

Counsellors and hypnotherapists are not eligible for rebates from services such as Medicare, private health funds, insurance companies, etc.

What is psychotherapy?

Psychologists and Accredited Mental Health Social Workers use psychotherapy to treat people presenting with life challenges. Psychologists and Accredited Mental Health Social Workers can also be called psychotherapists.

Psychotherapy is a collaborative effort between an individual or couple and a psychotherapist. It provides a supportive environment to talk openly and confidentially about concerns and feelings. Therapists consider maintaining your confidentiality extremely important and will answer your questions regarding those rare circumstances when confidential information must be shared.

How do I find the right therapist for me?

To find a therapist, ask your GP or another health professional. Ask family and friends for recommendations. Use Australian Psychology Society's Find a Therapist service or the Australian Association of Social Workers Find a Social Worker service.

What to consider when making the choice.

Mental Health Therapists and clients work together. The right match is important. Once the therapist’s credentials and competence are established, the most important factor is your level of personal comfort with that therapist. A good rapport with your therapist is critical. Choose one with whom you feel comfortable and at ease.

Questions to ask

  • Are you a registered psychologist / accredited mental health social worker? 

  • How many years have you been practicing? 

  • I have been feeling (anxious, tense, depressed, etc.) and I'm having problems (with my job, my marriage, eating, sleeping, etc.). What experience do you have helping people with these types of problems? 

  • What are your areas of expertise — for example, working with children and families? 

  • What kinds of treatments do you use, and have they been proven effective for dealing with my kind of problem or issue? 

  • What are your fees?  

  • Are you a registered provider for Medicare Australia?

  • Can I use private health funding?

  • Do I need a referral?

Will seeing a mental health therapist help me?

According to a research summary from the Stanford University School of Medicine, some forms of psychotherapy can effectively decrease patients' depression, anxiety and related symptoms such as pain, fatigue and nausea. Research increasingly supports the idea that emotional and physical health are closely linked and that seeing a mental health therapist can improve a person's overall health.

There is convincing evidence that most people who have at least several sessions with a mental health therapist are far better off than individuals with emotional difficulties who are untreated. One major study demonstrated that 50 percent of patients noticeably improved after eight sessions, while 75 percent of individuals in therapy improved by the end of six months.

How will I know if therapy is working?

As you begin therapy, you should establish clear goals with your therapist. You might be trying to overcome feelings of hopelessness associated with depression or control a fear that is disrupting your daily life. Remember, certain goals require more time to reach than others. You and your therapist should decide at what point you may expect to begin to see progress.

It is a good sign if you begin to feel a sense of relief, and a sense of hope. People often feel a wide variety of emotions during therapy. Some qualms about therapy that people may have result from their having difficulty discussing painful and troubling experiences. When you begin to feel relief or hope, it can be a positive sign indicating that you are starting to explore your thoughts and behaviour.

Examples of the types of problems that bring people to seek help from mental health therapists are provided below:

A man in his late 20s has just been put on probation at work because of inappropriate behaviour towards his staff and other employees. He has been drinking heavily and is getting into more arguments with his wife.

Once the contributing factors that may have led to the man's increase in stress have been examined, the therapist and the man will design a treatment that addresses the identified problems and issues. The therapist will help the client evaluate how he coped with, and what he learned from, any earlier experiences he had with a similar problem that might be useful for dealing with the current situation.

Functioning as a trained, experienced and impartial third party, the therapist will help this client take advantage of available resources (his own as well as other resources) to deal with the problem. The therapist also will assist this client with developing new skills and problem-solving strategies for confronting the problem he faces.

Crying spells, insomnia, lack of appetite and feelings of hopelessness are some of the symptoms a woman in her early 40s is experiencing. She has stopped going to her weekly social activities and has a hard time getting up to go to work. She feels like she lives in a black cloud and can't see an end to the way she feels.

The symptoms of depression are extremely difficult to deal with, and the causes may not be immediately apparent. Significant life changes — such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a child's leaving home for college — may contribute to depression. Therapists have a proven track record in helping people deal with and overcome depressive disorders.

A therapist will approach the problems this woman presents by addressing why she is reacting the way she is reacting now. Does she have a history or pattern of such feelings, and, if so, under what circumstances? What was helpful to her before when she dealt with similar feelings, and what is she doing now to cope with her feelings?

The therapist will work to help the client see a more positive future and reduce the negative thinking that tends to accompany depression. The therapist also will assist the client in problem-solving around any major life changes that have occurred. And the therapist may help facilitate the process of grieving if her depression resulted from a loss.

Medical problems may contribute to the symptoms the woman is experiencing. In such cases, medical and psychological interventions are called for to help individuals overcome their depression.

William and Jeanette have been married for 17 years, they have 3 children and have been under a lot of financial stress recently. They are both working long hours trying to get ahead. They have begun arguing frequently and have begun to talk about separating.

The stressors in daily lives frequently lead to problems in relationships when we don’t know how to constructively manage conflict, maintain intimacy and connection and continue to create a shared narrative together. The therapist first does a thorough assessment on William and Jane’s relationship and on them individually before collaboratively preparing and sharing a treatment plan and treatment goals with William and Jane.

Together, the therapist, William and Jane agree on relationship goals and how to achieve them. The therapist acts as a coach/teacher to assist William and Jane to engage in functional conversations around their areas of difference, to develop good relationship habits such as building their friendship through having fun together, increasing their intimacy and developing rituals of connection. All of these things help William and Jane to feel more like a team than opponents and helps them develop a range of skills to continue to improve their relationship.

Scott, a teenager, has just moved across town with his family and has been forced to transfer to a new high school. Once an excellent student, he is now skipping classes and getting very poor grades. He has had trouble making friends at this new school.

For most teenagers, "fitting in" is a critical part of adolescence. Scott is attempting to make a major life transition under difficult circumstances. He has been separated from the network of friends which made up his social structure and allowed him to feel "part of the group."

Young people often respond to troubling circumstances with marked changes in behaviour. Thus, an excellent student's starting to get poor grades, a social youngster's becoming a loner or a leader in school affairs losing interest in those activities would not be unusual.

A therapist, knowing that adolescents tend to "test" first and trust second, will likely initially spend time focusing on developing a relationship with Scott. Next, the therapist will work with Scott to find better ways to help him adjust to his new environment.

Trained mental health therapists help ordinary people , just like you and me, to get through the challenges in life in a happy, healthy way.

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