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A Guide to Beginning Your Mental Health Journey

woman with eye showing clear mental health

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (43.8 million, or 18.5% ) suffers from mental illness in a given year. Of those with a mental health condition, only 41% of adults in the U.S. received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 37.1% didn’t receive mental health services in the past year.

If you or someone you know is considering and/or seeking mental health treatment, it may be difficult to understand what your options are and what to expect. Do you see a therapist or a psychologist? What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? What should I expect from my first visit? Does insurance cover it? Read on below for the answers to these questions and more.

What type of mental health professional should I see?

Generally speaking, the three types of mental health professionals people seek are therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. There are distinct differences to take into account including education, approach, and patient-provider dynamic.

therapist generally has a Master’s degree in counseling psychology, psychology, or social work. Their primary job is to provide therapeutic interventions for clients who are experiencing a situational or other manageable form of mood disturbance or disorder. Master’s level therapists do not diagnose or “treat” conditions. The types of patients or clients they see are the ones who are most likely to respond favorably to cognitive and behavioral type therapies.

While a psychologist is referred to as a “doctor” at times, they do not have an MD, but rather a PhD or a Psy.D. A typical doctoral program will usually take 5–7 years to complete. In addition, the majority of the states will also require another one or two years under practice supervision, prior to receiving their full licensure.

A PhD practices either as a clinician, researcher, or both. A Psy.D. practices only as a clinician. A psychologist can diagnose as well as treat mental health disorders, often working with a psychiatrist for certain disorders that manifests with physical or neurological symptoms. In most states, psychologists are unable to write prescriptions so a psychiatrist assigned to the case does the prescribing.

psychiatrist has an MD and therefore can prescribe medication. They receive standard medical training in addition to four additional years of mental health training residency. Psychiatrists typically become involved in cases like schizophrenia, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, that are more effectively treated with pharmacological intervention. In addition to prescribing medication, they also partake in psychotherapeutic interventions.

The dynamic between therapist and patient is often described as a partnership whereas the dynamic between psychologist/psychiatrist and patient is often described as more diagnostic and prescriptive. This is because therapists typically take a more conversational self-discovery approach. In contrast, psychologists and psychiatrists are responsible for diagnosing mental illness and providing actionable interventions.

In terms of approach, different approaches work for different people, there hasn’t been research that one is particularly better than another. There’s cognitive-based therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, acceptance and commitment therapy, and so many more.

How to choose your mental health provider

Dr. Keely Kolmes, a psychologist in Oakland, in the New York Times points out that while online reviews can be helpful in highlighting red flags, it’s also important to know that therapy is so much more subjective than something like a restaurant. Kolmes writes, “something that works for one patient at a particular point in therapy might not work for him later, when his needs change.”

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential mental health professionals, reach out to them to schedule a quick chat on the phone. These consults last around 15 minutes and it’s an opportunity to feel each other out. When assessing fit during the consult, make sure to put a list of questions together highlighting things that you value as important, whether it has to do with schooling, experience with particular issues, or success rate. You should also take this opportunity to ask about fees and availability.

What to expect on your first visit to a mental health provider

On your first visit, you’ll notice that the initial interview may feel particularly invasive and personal. This is not something that most of us are accustomed to when we meet anyone for the first time. But this is important, since a therapist will need to know quite a bit when it comes to your personal background and details.

The questions that you may be asked will revolve around your family and childhood and will include personal information that you may not be used to divulging. However, if you feel uncomfortable about discussing anything in particular — let them know. A good mental health professional understands that there is a need to establish rapport and that some issues may take more time to approach.

Will insurance cover it?

According to a recent national poll by APA’s Practice Directorate, 87% of those polled cited lack of insurance coverage and 81% cited cost concerns as significant barriers. While some mental health professionals do accept insurance, not all do. A visit co-pay may be $20 for an in-network provider or $100 and up for out-of-network providers.

In addition to checking your insurance coverage, check out apps like Talkspace that provide live video and text chat with therapists at affordable price points. Slingshot Health also provides appointments with mental health professionals at a price point you choose.

About Slingshot Health

Slingshot Health is a health tech startup that brings top healthcare providers and patients together. Patients bid on the cost of services and healthcare providers accept bids based on availability. Slingshot Health is unique in that it is a mutual marketplace putting both patients and providers back in control. Visit us at