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Most people face mental health challenges at one point or another in their lifetime. Occasional grief, stress, and sadness are normal. But if you’re experiencing persistent or severe mental health challenges, it’s time to get help.
“Help is available,” advises Dawn Brown, director of information and engagement services at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Whether you’re feeling unsafe or a situation begins to escalate into a crisis, reaching out for help is important.”
When should you get help?
The following symptoms might be signs of an underlying mental health condition:
- thoughts of hurting yourself or others
- frequent or persistent feelings of sadness, anger, fear, worry, or anxiety
- frequent emotional outbursts or mood swings
- confusion or unexplained memory loss
- delusions or hallucinations
- intense fear or anxiety about weight gain
- dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
- unexplained changes in school or work performance
- inability to cope with daily activities or challenges
- withdrawal from social activities or relationships
- defiance of authority, truancy, theft, or vandalism
- substance abuse, including alcoholism or use of illegal drugs
- unexplained physical ailments
If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, get help right away. If you have other symptoms on this list, make an appointment with your doctor. Once they’ve ruled out a physical basis for your symptoms, they may refer you to a mental health specialist and other resources.
Are you making plans to hurt yourself or another person? That’s a mental health emergency. Go to a hospital emergency department or contact your local emergency services right away. Dial 911 for immediate emergency help.
Suicide prevention hotlines
Have you been thinking about hurting yourself? Consider contacting a suicide prevention hotline. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. It offers 24/7 support.
There are many types of healthcare providers who diagnose and treat mental illness. If you suspect you might have a mental health condition or need mental health support, make an appointment with your primary physician or a nurse practitioner. They can help you determine what type of provider you should see. In many cases, they can also provide a referral.
For example, they might recommend seeing one or more of the healthcare providers below.
Providers who prescribe medicine
A therapist can help diagnose and treat mental health conditions. There are many different types of therapists, including:
- clinical counselors
Therapists often specialize in certain areas, such as addiction or child behavioral issues.
Only some types of therapists prescribe medications. To prescribe medications, they need to be either a physician or nurse practitioner. In some cases, you may also see a physician’s assistant or a doctor of osteopathic medicine.
If your doctor suspects you have a mental health condition that requires medication, they might refer you to a psychiatrist. They often diagnose and treat conditions such as:
- anxiety disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- bipolar disorder
Prescribing medications is often their primary approach to providing treatment. Many psychiatrists don’t offer counseling themselves. Instead, many work with a psychologist or other mental health profession who can provide counseling.
Nurse psychotherapists generally diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders. They may also treat other health conditions.
Nurse psychotherapists have an advanced nursing degree. They are trained as clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners. Clinical nurse specialists can’t prescribe medications in most states. However, nurse practitioners can. They often use a combination of medications and counseling to treat patients.
If your doctor thinks you might benefit from therapy, they might refer you to a psychologist. Psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat mental health conditions and challenges, such as:
- anxiety disorders
- eating disorders
- learning difficulties
- relationship problems
- substance abuse
Psychologists are also trained to give psychological tests. For example, they might administer an IQ test or personality test.
A psychologist can potentially help you learn to manage your symptoms through counseling or other forms of therapy. In some states (Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico), they can prescribe medicine. However, when they can’t, psychologists can work with other healthcare providers who can prescribe medications.
Providers who can’t prescribe medicine
Marital and family therapist
Marital and family therapists are trained in psychotherapy and family systems. They often treat individuals, couples, and families who are coping with marital problems or child-parent problems.
Marital and family therapists aren’t licensed to prescribe medication. However, they often work with healthcare providers who can prescribe medications.
Peer specialists are people who’ve personally experienced and recovered from mental health challenges. They provide support to others who are going through similar experiences. For example, they may help people recover from substance abuse, psychological trauma, or other mental health challenges.
Peer specialists act as role models and sources of support. They share their personal experiences of recovery to give hope and guidance to others. They can also help people set goals and develop strategies to move forward in their recovery. Some peer specialists work for organizations as paid employees. Others offer their services as volunteers.
Peer specialists can’t prescribe medications because they aren’t clinical professionals.
Licensed professional counselor
Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) are qualified to provide individual and group counseling. They can have many titles, based on the particular areas they focus on. For example, some LPCs provide marriage and family therapy.
LPCs can’t prescribe medication because they’re not licensed to do so.
Mental health counselor
A mental health counselor is trained to diagnose and treat people coping with difficult life experiences, such as:
- relationship problems
- mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
Mental health counselors provide counseling on an individual or group basis. Some work in private practice. Others work for hospitals, residential treatment centers, or other agencies.
Mental health counselors can’t provide medications because they’re not equipped with a license. However, many work with healthcare providers who can prescribe medications when needed.
Alcohol and drug abuse counselor
Alcohol and drug abuse counselors are trained to treat people with alcohol and drug addictions. If you’ve been abusing alcohol or drugs, they can help guide you on the path of sobriety. For example, they can potentially help you learn to:
- modify your behavior
- avoid triggers
- manage withdrawal symptoms
Alcohol and drug abuse counselors can’t prescribe medications. If they think you might benefit from medications, they might advise you to talk to your family doctor or nurse practitioner.
VA-certified counselors have been trained by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They offer counseling to military veterans. Many veterans return from service with injuries or stress-related illnesses. For example, you might come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’re a veteran, a VA-certified counselor can help you:
- learn to manage mental health conditions
- transition from military life to civilian life
- cope with negative emotions, such as grief or guilt
VA-certified counselors can’t prescribe medication. If they think you might need medication, they may encourage you to talk to your family doctor, nurse practitioner, or psychiatrist.
A pastoral counselor is a religious counselor who is trained to provide counseling. For example, some priests, rabbis, imams, and ministers are trained counselors. They typically have a postgraduate degree. They often combine psychological methods with religious training to promote psycho-spiritual healing.
Spirituality is an important part of recovery for some people. If your religious beliefs are a pivotal part of your identity, you might find pastoral counseling helpful.
Pastoral counselors can’t prescribe medication. However, some develop professional relationships with healthcare providers who can prescribe medications when needed.
Clinical social workers are professional therapists who hold a master’s degree in social work. They’re trained to provide individual and group counseling. They often work in hospitals, private practices, or clinics. Sometimes they work with people in their homes or schools.
Clinical social workers can’t prescribe medication.
If you start to experience symptoms of a mental health condition, don’t wait for them to get worse. Instead, reach out for help. To start, make an appointment with your family doctor or nurse practitioner. They can refer you to a specialist.
Keep in mind that it can sometimes be challenging to find a therapist who meets your needs. You might need to connect with more than one therapist before you find the right fit.
Consider these factors
Before you look for a therapist, you’ll want to know the answer to these questions:
- What type of a mental health support are you looking for?
- Are you looking for a healthcare provider who can offer therapy?
- Are you looking for someone who can prescribe medication?
- Are you looking for both medication and therapy?
Contact your insurance provider
If you have health insurance, call your insurance provider to learn if they cover mental health services. If they do, ask for the contact information of local service providers who accept your insurance plan. If you need support for a specific condition, ask for providers who treat that condition.
Other questions that you should ask your insurance provider include:
- Are all diagnoses and services covered?
- What are the copay and deductible amounts for these services?
- Can you make a direct appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist? Or do you need to see a primary care physician or nurse practitioner first for a referral?
It’s always a good idea to ask for the names and contact information of multiple providers. The first provider you try might not be the right fit for you.
Look for therapists online
Your family doctor, nurse practitioner, and insurance provider can help you find a therapist in your area. You can also look for therapists online. For example, consider using these databases:
- American Psychiatric Association: Find a Psychiatrist
- American Psychological Association: Psychologist Locator
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Find a Therapist
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: Find a Pro
- International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation: Find Help
- SAMHSA: Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
- Veterans Affairs: VA Certified Counselors
Schedule an appointment
It’s time to book an appointment. If you’re reluctant to make the call, you can ask a friend or family member to call on your behalf. A few things to do:
- If it’s your first time visiting a therapist, let them know that. They may want to schedule a longer appointment to provide more time for introductions and diagnosis.
- If the first available appointment time is far in the future, take that appointment time but ask to be put on a waiting list. If another patient cancels, you might get an earlier appointment. You can also call other therapists to learn if you can get an earlier appointment with them.
- While you wait for your appointment, consider looking for other sources of support. For example, you might be able to find a support group in your area. If you’re a member of a religious community, you might be able to get support from a pastoral counselor. Your school or workplace might also offer counseling services.
If you’re in a crisis and need immediate help, go to a hospital emergency department or call 911.
Find the right fit
Once you’ve met with a therapist, it’s time to reflect on whether they’re the right fit for you. Here are some important things to consider:
- How much education and professional experience do they have? Have they worked with other people going through similar experiences or coping with a similar diagnosis? They should be qualified to provide the services that they’re offering. Most of the providers discussed previously should have at least a master’s degree, or in the case of psychologists, a doctoral degree.
- Do you feel comfortable with them? What “vibe” do you get from them? The personal questions that your therapist asks you might make you uncomfortable sometimes, but that person shouldn’t make you feel uneasy. You should feel like they’re on your side.
- Do they understand and respect your cultural background and identify? Are they willing to learn more about your background and beliefs? Consider following NAMI’s tips for finding culturally competent care.
- What processes does the therapist expect you to follow to establish mental health goals and evaluate your progress? What kind of improvements can you expect to see? You may be more comfortable with one approach to providing care over another.
- How often will you meet? How hard will it be to get an appointment? Can you contact the therapist by phone or email between appointments? If you can’t see or talk to them as often as you need, another service provider might be better suited to you.
- Can you afford their services? If you’re concerned about your ability to pay for appointments or meet your insurance copays or deductibles, bring it up with your therapist when you first meet them. Ask if you can pay on a sliding scale or at a discounted price. Doctors and therapists often prefer to prepare for potential financial challenges in advance because it’s important to continue treatment without interruption.
If you feel uncomfortable with the first therapist that you visit, move on to the next one. It’s not enough for them to be a qualified professional. You need to work well together. Developing a trusting relationship is critical to meeting your long-term treatment needs.
Distance therapy can be conducted by voice, text, chat, video, or email. Some therapists offer distance therapy to their patients when they’re out of town. Others offer distance therapy as a stand-alone service. To learn more about distance counseling, visit the American Distance Counseling Association.
Many hotlines, online information services, mobile apps, and even video games are available to help people cope with mental illness.
Many organizations run hotlines and online services to provide mental health support. These are just a few of the hotlines and online services that are available:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline offers phone support to people experiencing domestic violence.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers phone support to people in emotional distress.
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline provides treatment referrals and information support to people coping with substance abuse or other mental health conditions.
- Veterans Crisis Line provides support to veterans and their loved ones.
An online search will turn up more services in your area.
A growing number of mobile apps are available to help people cope with mental illness. Some apps facilitate communication with therapists. Others offer links to peer support. Still others provide educational information or tools to promote good mental health.
You shouldn’t use mobile apps as a replacement for your doctor or therapist’s prescribed treatment plan. But some apps might make a helpful addition to your larger treatment plan.
- Breathe2Relax is a portable stress management tool. It provides detailed information on how stress affects the body. It also helps users learn how to manage stress using a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. It’s available for free on iOS and Android devices.
- IntelliCare is designed to help people manage depression and anxiety. The IntelliCare Hub app and related mini apps are available for free on Android devices.
- MindShift is designed to help youth gain insight into anxiety disorders. It provides information about generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and panic attacks. It also provides tips for developing basic coping strategies.
- PTSD Coach was designed for veterans and military service members who have PTSD. It provides information about PTSD, including treatment and management strategies. It also includes a self-assessment tool. It’s available for free on iOS and Android devices.
- SAM: Self Help for Anxiety Management provides information about managing anxiety. It’s available for free on iOS and Android devices
- TalkSpace seeks to make therapy more accessible. It connects users to licensed therapists, using a messaging platform. It also provides access to public therapy forums. It’s free to download on iOS and Android devices.
- Equanimity is a meditation app. It may help you develop a stress-relieving meditation practice. It’s available to download for $4.99 on iOS devices
- Lantern offers sessions designed to boost emotional well-being. It’s a subscription-based service. (Email customer support for current pricing.) Although the service is web-based, you can also download a free supplemental app for iOS devices.
- Worry Watch is designed to help users document and manage experiences with chronic worry, anticipatory anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder. It’s available on iOS for $1.99.
For information about other mental health apps, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Video game therapy
Video gaming is a popular leisure activity. Certain doctors also use video games for therapeutic purposes. In some cases, immersing yourself in virtual worlds might help you take a break from everyday anxieties.
How can you use video games as a form of therapy?
What makes this practice unique is that it’s not the gaming that is the emphasis. We’re practitioners. We see kids, adolescents, and adults who come in with various issues or concerns — whether they’re anxious, depressed, or struggling with school problems or relationships — and we see that games have provided a way for people to cope.Elizabeth Messer, LCSW-R, co-director of Electronic Gaming Therapy.Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
Some game designers have created games specifically geared toward mental health. For example:
- Depression Quest aims to help people with depression understand that they’re not alone. It also illustrates how the condition can affect people.
- Luminosity uses games to strengthen players’ cognitive abilities.
- Project EVO was designed to provide daily therapy to people with brain disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.
- Sparx is a role-playing game. It strives to promote positive affirmations through interactions among players. It’s currently available only in New Zealand.
- SuperBetter aims to increase resilience. This is the ability to stay strong, motivated, and optimistic in the face of difficult obstacles.
Ask your doctor for more information about the potential benefits and risks of video gaming.
Whether you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or coping with mental illness, many nonprofit organizations offer support. Consider connecting with one of the organizations listed below. Or conduct an online search to find an organization in your area.
- Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors provides support to suicide survivors. It also helps those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides resources to people affected by suicide.
- Candle Inc. offers programs designed to prevent substance abuse.
- Child Mind Institute provides support to children and families coping with mental health and learning disorders.
- Children’s Health Council provides support services to children and families coping with a variety of mental health and learning disorders.
- Finding Balance is a Christian organization. It strives to help people develop a healthy relationship with food and weight.
- Hope of Survivors offers support to victims of clergy sexual abuse and misconduct. It also provides education to clergy and churches.
- Knights of Heroes Foundation runs an annual wilderness adventure camp for children who’ve lost their parents during military service.
- Mental Health America is dedicated to promoting good mental health among Americans. It promotes prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for people at risk of mental illness.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness promotes the well-being of Americans affected by mental illness. It offers education and support resources.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network strives to improve care for children and youth who’ve been exposed to traumatic events.
- National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health promotes policies and services to support families of children and youth who are coping with emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges.
- Treatment Advocacy Center promotes policies and practices to improve psychiatric care. It also supports research on mental illnesses.
- The Trevor Project provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. It focuses on crisis and suicide prevention.
- Soaring Spirits International offers peer-based support programs to people coping with grief.
- Sober Living America provides structured living environments for people who are trying to recover from alcohol and drug abuse.
- Washburn Center for Children provides support to children with behavioral, emotional, and social problems.
To find more nonprofit organizations that focus on mental health, visit:
Support groups focus on a wide variety of conditions and experiences. In a support group, you can share your experiences with others and give and provide emotional support. To start your search, consider exploring these links:
- Al-Anon/Alateenruns meetings for friends and family members of people with a history of alcohol abuse.
- Alcoholics Anonymous runs meetings for people with a history of alcohol abuse.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America maintains a directory of support groups for people with anxiety and depression.
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association offers support group services to members of the organization.
- The Compassionate Friends provides support to families that have lost a child.
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance runs meetings for people with depression and bipolar disorder.
- Dual Recovery Anonymous runs meetings for people who have both substance abuse issues and an emotional or psychiatric illness.
- Gamblers Anonymous runs meetings for people with gambling problems, as well as their family members and friends.
- Gift From Within maintains a directory of support groups for people with PTSD, as well as their family members and friends.
- International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation maintains a directory of support groups for people with OCD, as well as their loved ones.
- Mental Health America maintains a directory of peer support programs for people with different mental health conditions.
- Narcotics Anonymous runs meetings for people with a history of drug addiction.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness runs meetings for people with mental illness.
- National Eating Disorders Association maintains a directory of support groups for people with eating disorders.
- Overeaters Anonymous runs in-person, telephone, and online meetings for people with a history of disordered eating, such as food addiction.
- Postpartum Support International runs meetings for families coping with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, such as postpartum depression.
- S-Anon International Family Groups runs meetings for family and friends of people with a sexual addiction. It offers in-person, online, and phone meetings.
- Sex Addicts Anonymous runs meetings for people with a sexual addiction. It facilitates in-person, online, and phone meetings.
- Survivors of Incest Anonymous runs meetings for people who’ve survived incest.
- Well Spouse Association facilitates support groups for people who act as caregivers for partners with a chronic illness.
You might be able to find local organizations that provide mental health support in your area. Ask your doctor, nurse practitioner, or therapist for information about local services. You can also check the bulletin boards and resources at clinics, hospitals, libraries, community centers, and other sites. They often provide information about local organizations, programs, and events.
Many of the organizations listed in the “Finding therapy,” “Nonprofit organizations,” and “Support groups” sections of this article operate local chapters. Some of them maintain directories of local services. For example, Mental Health America maintains a directory of local services and affiliates. MentalHealth.gov and SAMHSA also maintain directories of local services.
If you can’t find local support, consider exploring the resources listed in the “Online and phone” section.
Types of care
Depending on your condition, you might receive the following care:
- If you receive outpatient care, you’ll generally be treated at an office, without staying overnight at a hospital or other treatment center.
- If you receive inpatient care, you’ll stay overnight at a hospital or other treatment center to get treatment.
- If you undergo partial hospitalization, you’ll receive treatment over the course of multiple days, generally for several hours each day. However, you won’t stay overnight at the hospital or other treatment center.
- If you receive residential care, you’ll be admitted to a residential setting and live there on a temporary or ongoing basis. You’ll be able to access 24-hour support there.
You can look for treatment facilities online. For example:
- AlcoholScreening.org maintains a directory of treatment programs for people with alcoholism.
- American Residential Treatment Association maintains a directory of residential treatment facilities.
- Depression and Bipolar Support Allianceallows you to search for facilities that have been recommended by other people with mental illness.
- SAMHSA provides a tool for locating behavioral health treatment services. It can help you find facilities that treat substance abuse or other mental health conditions.
For additional directories, explore the resources listed in the “Finding therapy” section.
If you can’t afford a private psychiatric hospital, ask your doctor for information about public psychiatric hospitals. They often provide acute and long-term care to people who would have financial difficulties paying for treatment.
Psychiatric hold is a procedure that allows healthcare professionals to hold patients at a treatment center. You may be put on a psychiatric hold under the following conditions:
- You intend to harm someone else or pose a danger to other people.
- You intend to harm yourself or pose a danger to yourself.
- You’re unable to meet your basic needs for survival due to mental illness.
Mental health professionals will examine you to determine a diagnosis. They may offer you crisis counseling, medications, and referrals for follow-up care. Laws vary by state in terms of involuntary admission, but you may be held anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the severity of your symptoms.
If you think you might pose an immediate risk to your own safety or someone else’s, go to a hospital emergency department or call 911.
Psychiatric advance directive
If you have a severe mental health condition, consider establishing a psychiatric advance directive (PAD). A PAD is also known as a mental health advance directive. It’s a legal document that you can prepare when you’re in a mentally competent state to outline your preferences for treatment in the case of a mental health crisis.
A PAD can potentially help you do the following:
- Promote your autonomy.
- Improve communications between you, your family, and your healthcare providers.
- Protect you from ineffective, unwanted, or potentially harmful interventions.
- Reduce the use of involuntary treatment or safety interventions, such as restraints or seclusion.
There are multiple types of PAD. Some examples:
- An instructive PAD provides written instructions about the specific treatments that you’d like to receive if you experience a crisis that leaves you unable to make decisions.
- A proxy PAD names a healthcare proxy or agent to make treatment decisions on your behalf in cases when you’re unable to do so yourself.
If you decide to establish a proxy PAD, choose a family member, spouse, or close friend who you trust to advocate for you. It’s important to discuss your wishes with them before designating them as your proxy. They’ll be in charge of your care and treatment plans. They need to fully understand your wishes to act as an effective proxy.
For more information on PADs, visit the National Resource Center on Psychiatric Advance Directives or Mental Health America.
Clinical trials are designed to test new approaches to providing medical care. Through clinical trials, researchers can potentially develop new ways to diagnose, prevent, detect, and treat diseases.
To conduct clinical trials, researchers need to recruit volunteers to act as study subjects. There are two main types of volunteers:
- Volunteers who don’t have any significant health problems.
- Patient volunteers who have a physical or mental health condition.
Depending on the type of study, researchers may recruit regular volunteers, patient volunteers, or both.
To participate in a clinical trial, you must meet the eligibility criteria. These criteria vary from one study to another. They can include criteria related to age, sex, gender, and medical history.
Before volunteering for a clinical trial, it’s important to understand the potential benefits and risks. These vary from one study to another.
For example, here are a few of the benefits of participating in clinical trials:
- You contribute to medical research.
- You gain access to experimental treatments before they become widely available.
- You receive regular medical attention from a research team of health professionals.
Participating in clinical trials can also pose risks:
- There might be unpleasant, serious, or even life-threatening side effects associated with some types of experimental treatments.
- The study might require more time and attention than standard treatment would. For example, you might have to visit the study site multiple times or undergo extra tests for research purposes.
You can find more information about clinical trials in your area by searching online. To begin your search, consider exploring the websites listed here:
If you’re outside of the United States, you might find the list of resources at the Centre for Global Mental Health website helpful.
As well, try the links below for mental health resources if you happen to be in one of these countries:
- Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health strives to advance policy discussion on mental health.
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention maintains a directory of local crisis centers, including many that offer phone support.
- eMental Health maintains a database of crisis hotlines across the country.
- Centre for Mental Health conducts research, education, and advocacy to support people with mental health problems.
- NHS: Mental Health Helplines provides a list of organizations that operate hotlines and other support services.
- AASRA is a crisis intervention center. It supports people who are coping with suicidal thoughts or emotional distress.
- National Institute of Behavioural Sciences: Mental Health Helpline provides support for people with mental illness.
- Vandrevala Foundation: Mental Health Helpline offers phone support to people coping with mental health challenges.
Mental health challenges can be difficult to tackle. But support can be found in many places, and your treatment plan is one that is unique to you and your mental health journey. It’s important that you feel comfortable with your treatment plan and seek resources that will aid your recovery. The most important thing is to take that first step to get help, and then stay active in your treatment plan.