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Learn more about common mental health conditions that affect millions.
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A great first step to improving your mental health is to practice self-care and engage in “de-stressing” activities such as exercise, meditation or journaling.
If self-care and stress-reduction steps don’t help and you are experiencing significant distress, emotional pain or disruptions to your daily functioning — or if you are concerned about potentially putting yourself or others at risk — you should reach out for help and support.
You can begin by describing your experiences, thoughts, problems and concerns with someone you trust. While a friend or relative may not be able to solve your problem, sharing your worries with someone who is supportive and empathetic can offer some relief. Moreover, your loved one might be able to help you find clinical care if you decide to seek professional help.
There are many different types of mental health therapies. Two of the primary types are categorized as psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications. Research has shown that the most effective treatment for mental health conditions involves a combination of therapeutic approaches determined in a collaboration between the individual, the family and the health care providers.
Finding a mental health professional who you feel comfortable working with can take some effort and patience. The title “therapist” or “clinician” can refer to several different professions, and the qualifications required for these practitioners can differ from state to state. However, if someone is properly trained, experienced and licensed, their specific degree is not as important as the helping relationship you develop with them. One important distinction is the ability to prescribe medications which is limited to a few specific professions, usually psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and in some states psychologists.
Before finding a mental health provider, you should think about:
Once you are ready to start your search, consider the people in your community who might be able to make suggestions or recommendations.
If none of these resources are available, you can also:
When you first meet a therapist, be clear about what you expect to get out of treatment and explain what you believe your difficulties are. After you have completed your first few sessions, they should tell you what they understand about your concerns and how they plan to work with you to address them.
If the therapist uses technical language that is unclear to you (for example, “I use CBT to treat phobic disorders”), it is perfectly ok to ask them to explain how this applies to you. A mental health clinician who has a strong understanding of their therapeutic approach should be able to explain it to you in simple and non-technical language.
Remember that the most important indicators of successful therapy are feeling understood and comfortable speaking with the therapist. It is ok to “shop” for therapists, as finding the right match for you is essential to getting better.
People are complex by nature — we often identify with many different “labels,” values and personal characteristics, all of which are impacted by social and cultural factors. A good therapist will see the totality of who you are.
You might feel more comfortable working with a therapist who shares some aspects of your cultural or personal background. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach. A therapist who shares your background might have an easier time understanding and relating to your experiences, and you may feel more comfortable with someone who has this personal insight. However, these similarities might lead a therapist to assume things about you that are not accurate or relevant to your individual life experience.
It may also be difficult to find a therapist who shares your cultural or personal background, especially in areas of the country with few providers. Regardless of their own identities, your therapist needs to be respectful, comfortable and curious about your cultural or personal background and your individual history.
You are the best judge of your own comfort. If you are unsure, you should ask the therapist if they have experience (and are comfortable with) working with clients who share your background. A therapist who is uneasy having this discussion might not be a good fit — you should always feel comfortable talking about your concerns. It is not necessary for a therapist to know everything about your background to provide effective care, but they do need to be respectful and comfortable discussing your background and experiences.
Please look at our “Identity and Cultural Dimensions” web page to learn more about culturally competent care.
For some mental health issues, talk therapy might not be the only tool you need to manage your symptoms. For conditions like severe or persistent anxiety and depression, severe mood swings, attention problems or psychosis, medication can be an important aspect of care and treatment.
Medication and talk therapy are often used together to treat mental health conditions. If you find your symptoms are effectively managed with medication, it is still important to stay in touch with your care team and support system to make sure your treatment stays on track.
You may need a referral to a mental health care provider who can also prescribe medications, such as a psychiatrist, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. While a primary care doctor is licensed to prescribe psychiatric medications, they may refer you for an evaluation by a psychiatrist to receive a formal diagnosis or confirm that medication is an appropriate part of your treatment.
If your psychotherapist or primary care doctor are not able to make a referral to a prescribing clinician, check in with your school’s counseling service, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at your work or your health insurance carrier for recommendations and listings of psychiatrists who participate with their plan.
When you meet with a prescribing clinician, they should spend enough time with you to get a clear sense of your situation. If they do recommend a specific medication or other treatment after completing their evaluation, they should explain why they are making this recommendation and what you should expect from the medication or treatment, including benefits and potential side effects that you should be aware of. They should also provide clear instructions detailing how to take the medication and what to do if you have questions or concerns.
When you are beginning a new medication, the prescribing clinician should check in with you frequently to ensure there are no problems and to make any necessary adjustments in dosage. Many psychiatric medications require dose adjustments as your body gets used to the medication. In general, practitioners will try to find the lowest effective dose of a medication, as this lowers the risk of side effects, but everyone’s bodies respond differently.
Once you have adjusted to a stable dose of medication, it is important to stick with your treatment plan. Do not change the dosage or schedule of your medication without discussing it with your prescriber. While follow-up visits do not need to happen very often, you should stay in touch with your prescriber to monitor any changes in your condition and adjust your treatment plan as necessary.