Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Australia, with one in five people experiencing mental health issues each year.
It can be overwhelming to deal with these issues alone, and we’re better able to recover and navigate these periods of life when we have someone by our side. Accessing the right support, treatment, and medication can be lifechanging.
With so many different mental health professionals, services, and treatments out there, it can be difficult to know where to turn to. The important thing to remember is that there is no one right way to seek help. Everyone’s different, and everyone’s mental health journey is different as well.
The general rule of thumb is that if you have been feeling anxious, sad, or not yourself for two weeks, then it might be time to seek professional help.
With that in mind, we have prepared a guide to answer the common questions people face when deciding how to seek help – from where to start, to the range of practitioners available and what kinds of treatment they provide – to help you get started on your own journey.
Where do you start when looking for a mental health professional?
If you’re looking for mental health support, you will probably come across a range of mental health professionals who all vary widely in their experience, expertise, and training. Some specialise in supporting psychological issues, such as stress or grief. While others focus on more complex mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder or eating disorders.
“The most important thing to do is to first have a think about the sorts of issues you believe you might need to consult a mental health professional on,” Grant, a mental health expert at EPIC Assist, says.
“Do you need to consult someone who specialises in relationship matters or family issues? Or do you need to talk about your feelings of grief and loss after the death of a close family member? Perhaps you’re struggling with a personal crisis or a mental illness and feel confused or overwhelmed about what to do next?”
You don’t need to have all this fully fleshed out before you decide to seek help. That’s what mental health professionals are there for – to help you understand what you’re experiencing and support you through your mental health journey. But it’s a good idea to think about where your mental health might be at right now.
Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around this, Grant says that there are a few first steps you can take if you’re not quite ready to go to your GP.
- Call a mental health national telephone support line, such as Lifeline. These can be very helpful in listening to your concerns and making recommendations about the types of mental health support services that are available in your community.
- Look up the websites for different mental health registries. These usually provide a list of qualified practitioners working in your local community. Some also allow you to filter by expertise (for example, anxiety, autism, pain management), experience (for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, LGTBQIA+), and services (for example, bulk-bill, after hours).
- Ask your friends and relatives for recommendations about mental health professionals who were able to provide good quality support and assistance. A lot of people find opening up to someone they know easier than opening up to a stranger – even if they are a trained professional – in the beginning.
- If the problem is urgent or a crisis where you or someone else is at risk of harm, then contact emergency services. If it’s safe to do so, take the person to the Emergency Department of your local hospital.
So, now that you’re ready to seek help, what’s the best type of mental health professional for you to see?
Your GP is a good first point of contact when it comes to discussing your mental health.
“Most people will start by talking with their GP,” says Grant.
“Your GP will discuss some of the supports that are available and if they think you require a Mental Health Care Plan, they might refer you to a psychologist or another mental health professional.”
A Mental Health Care Plan allows you to access subsidised sessions each year with a mental health practitioner through Medicare. Depending on where you live, there could be a waiting list to see a mental health practitioner. During this wait, your GP can assist you with any management strategies or treatment options.
“Your GP can also talk with you about prescribing medications that might help manage any symptoms associated with an identified mental health condition.”
When you first go see a GP, they will usually run through a basic assessment of your mental health. They will spend some time carefully listening to you and asking questions about your symptoms and management to decide what type of specialist support may help you.
If your GP doesn’t give you a referral to a mental health professional, you can still go directly to a counsellor or psychologist yourself.
General and clinical psychologists work with people experiencing a vast variety of mental health conditions. This might include addictions, mood and anxiety disorders, psychosis, brain injuries and neurological disorders, grief and loss, and developmental issues that arise at important stages of change in our lives – particularly during childhood, adolescence, relationships, parenting and aging.
“There are also psychologists who specialise in health, education, sports, neuropsychology, and developmental psychology,” says Grant.
“So, if you have a specific issue you are seeking help for, there may be a specialist psychologist out there for you.”
Psychologists use different types of talk-based therapies to explore and provide guidance or coping strategies to both people with mental health conditions, and people without.
An appointment with a psychologist will usually start with them asking you some questions about your current circumstances. They may take some time to talk about your personal history or ask you to complete a psychological assessment to give them a better idea of the type of mental health or personal problems you may be dealing with.
“Psychologists are able to diagnose and treat different mental health conditions but they are not medical doctors and so they cannot prescribe medications.”
That’s where psychiatrists come in.
Find a psychologist: Australian Psychological Society (APS)
The key difference between psychologists and psychiatrists is that psychiatrists are medically trained doctors who specialise in mental health.
“Psychiatrists are qualified to diagnose and treat all types of mental health conditions, and to prescribe medications to help you manage the symptoms of your mental health condition.”
Because of this, they typically work with people with complex mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression, severe anxiety, and PTSD.
Psychiatrists can usually be found working in hospitals, community mental health organisations, and private practices. Many work very closely with psychologists, psychiatric nurses, occupational therapists, and social workers, so they are in a unique position to help people receive the best possible combination of mental health support.
Before you can meet with a psychiatrist in private practice, you will usually need a referral from your GP.
Find a psychiatrist: The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZP)
And more: mental health social workers, counsellors, and psychotherapists
“Not everyone needs or wants to seek a referral to a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Perhaps you don’t really need a formal assessment or diagnosis. Maybe you’ve already been prescribed medication, and now you need someone with training and experience to help you work out the best way forward or help with some strategies to manage uncomfortable feelings and thoughts.”
If that’s the case then you might benefit from a referral to a mental health social worker, counsellor, or psychotherapist.
“The terms ‘counsellor’ and ‘psychotherapist’ are general descriptions for professionals who offer different types of ‘talking therapy’. A counsellor might work as a nurse, social worker, or an occupational therapist and use a wide range of counselling skills within their day-to-day job.”
Counsellors usually provide short-term support for personal problems such as grief, anxiety, and managing conflict in relationships. Whereas psychotherapists typically focus on longer-term treatment to uncover the root cause of a problem and improve your overall quality of life.
Find a social worker: Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW)
Find counsellors or psychotherapists: Australian Counselling Association (ACA) or Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA)
Finding the right match
With so many mental health professionals out there, how do you know which one is the right one for you?
“Whoever you decide to talk to, my main recommendation would be to pick someone who can demonstrate they are trained, qualified and suitably experienced to work with you in the area you are seeking support.
“Ideally, this would be a person who is registered with their professional organisation and has several years’ experience working with people who have similar issues to your own.”
Finding the right match mightn’t always be easy. Sometimes the first person you choose to seek help with mightn’t be right for you, and that’s okay. Everyone is different, and so is every mental health professional.
There are a few things you can look out for to see if a mental health professional is going to be the right match for you.
“You should get a sense they are working hard to listen to your thoughts and feelings, and that they have both the skills and knowledge to work creatively with you to support an outcome that fits your needs.
“Finding the right match is important to developing a positive relationship with your mental health worker and this will go a long way to getting the most out of your time together.”
EPIC Assist helps people with mental health conditions find work
At EPIC Assist, we understand that looking after your mental health has everything to do with success in your life. This is especially true for job seekers who are looking for employment, and those who are in a new role.
EPIC Assist helps people with mental health conditions, disability, injury, and other health conditions find and maintain meaningful work. With one in three EPIC staff members having lived experience of disability, we draw upon the insights and life experiences of our staff with mental illness to understand and holistically meet the needs of our job seekers.
If you think you could benefit from our support, get in touch with us today.
National support lines
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 497
- Kids Helpline (up to 25 years): 1800 551 800
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Men’s Line Australia: 1300 789 978
- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
- Q-life LGBTQIA+: 1800 184 527
- Lifeline Text (6pm-12am): 0477 131 114
- GriefLine: 1300 845 745