Getting Help for Mental Illness

If you think that you, or someone you’re close to, might have mental health problems, you’ve already taken the first step, which is to notice that something doesn’t seem right. For instance, someone might seem depressed, anxious, see or hear things that aren’t there, abuse drugs, or have other problems with thinking.

The second step is to get help from a psychiatrist or another mental health expert (such as a psychologist or a clinical social worker).

Doing these two things can be tough. But once you do, you can find out what’s going on and start to get better.

The sooner you do it, the better. Like many other medical conditions, mental illnesses are often easiest to treat when they’re in the early stages. 


If it’s an emergency — for instance, someone is suicidal or in a crisis — call 911.

If it’s not an emergency, start with your regular doctor. They will check to make sure that medication or another illness is not the cause of your symptoms. If you are physically fine, they will likely refer you to a mental health care professional — someone trained in treating mental health.

If you have health insurance, find out what your plan covers. Your employer might offer an “Employee Assistance Plan” (EAP) that offers counseling, too. If you are a veteran, the VA system also has resources.

Many health care professionals do this, including:

Primary care doctor: These doctors are either MDs or DOs who have general knowledge in treating a wide variety of common conditions. They are sometimes called general practitioners.

Physician assistant (PA): These caregivers are not doctors, but they are trained to identify symptoms of mental illness and to treat mental disorders under a doctor’s supervision.

Nurse practitioner: These registered nurses (RNs) have extra training, including some background in treating psychiatric problems.

Psychiatrist: These are medical doctors (MDs) who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. Psychiatrists can prescribe drugs as part of their treatment plan. They are also trained in psychotherapy, a form of counseling or “talk therapy.”

Psychologist: These experts aren’t MDs, but they have advanced degrees in psychology (PhD or PsyD). They are trained in counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing. They cannot prescribe drugs to treat mental illnesses except in certain states.

Social worker: These specialists can provide counseling services and social service needs. They are trained to recognize mental illness and can do psychotherapy.

Psychiatric nurse specialist: These are registered nurses (RNs) who specialize in treating mental or psychiatric illnesses.

You will want to work with someone you feel comfortable talking with. What you say is confidential unless someone’s safety is at stake or unless a court order is involved. 

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