In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we are seeking to bring attention to the importance of caring for mental health as well spiritual health. The article below was written by Rev. Brittany Stillwell—a minister who cares deeply about mental health but is not a trained mental health care professional—with the help of friends who are trained in mental health care. A special thanks to Megan Moss (LMSW) for her help with this article.

In this season of life, as pandemic moves to endemic and we are all left trying to figure out how to live in this new world, many are seeking a professional therapist to help make sense of their lives. Our world is beginning to take mental health seriously and seeing a therapist is becoming less stigmatized.

Finding a mental health professional, however, can be challenging, especially in this season. While there are a variety of options, many established practices have long wait lists. If you are considering seeking help from a mental health care professional, here are some tips for finding a therapist that is right for you:

A crash course in mental health care—

There is a plethora of certifications for mental health professionals and they tend to come with a string of letters after their names. Here are some acronyms you might encounter:

MHSP (Mental Health Service Provider)
LMSW (Licensed Masters Social Worker): this person has received a social work degree but has not necessarily completed the number of hours of clinical supervision required to be a LCSW. They are often working toward these hours and are under the supervision of an LCSW.
LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker): this person has received the number of supervised clinical hours required for licensing.
LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist): this person has a specialty in family systems and can provide the same care as an LMSW.
LCAT (Licensed Creative Art Therapist): has had courses on art and mental health, providing therapy with art as an intervention.
LCADC/LASAC/LISAC (Alcohol and Drug Counseling specialization)
PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)

Not all mental health professionals are licensed (meaning they have completed the required number of supervised clinical hours and are bound by the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics). While life coaches and spiritual directors can be very helpful with goal setting and life planning, they are not trained to provide mental health care and are not officially bound by a code of ethics. You may need to be even more judicial in your choosing. Here is a list of mental health professionals who are licensed and trained to provide mental health care:

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) 
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC) 
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP) 

Therapists can specialize in a variety of topics such as: addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, family/couples’ issues, LGBTQIA, grief/loss, personality disorders, life transitions, teen/adolescent issues, and trauma. Ask any potential therapists about their specialties and their training in these areas as you try to find the one that best fits your specific needs. There are also different types of counseling. You can attend as an individual, couple, family, or even in a group with other folks seeking similar care. Many mental health care providers are offering virtual appointments now as well. This can be a great option if there is not a qualified professional in your area or if getting to an office for in-person care is difficult for you.

Choosing a mental health care provider—

While there are many people out there who can help you with your mental health, you are ultimately responsible for taking the steps necessary to care for your mental health. You have the power to choose your provider and to set goals that will move you toward health. Before choosing a mental health provider consider your needs. What is leading you to consider therapy? What are your goals? Who needs to be involved in your journey toward health? Do you need individual counseling or do you need others in the conversation?

Once you have done the work of discerning your own mental health needs it’s time to make some calls. Consider what specialties (listed above) might be helpful for your specific circumstance. Spend the time seeking recommendations from people you trust and researching individual therapists. Don’t be afraid to call and be explicit about your needs. Many practices can match you with the therapist that will best fit your situation.

What to expect in your first sessions—

In your first sessions you will share your story and any presenting issues with your therapist and set goals. Your therapist will share their process and thoughts on best practices for moving forward with care. This should be a team effort. Remember… you are the expert on your own life. You get to ask for what you need. However, the purpose of therapy is to dig deeper and to find the root of issues that are creating cycles of unhealth in your life. It will be uncomfortable. You can expect a “therapy hangover” after your sessions—feel exhausted and overwhelmed. You just did hard, emotional work. It’s ok to feel out of sorts after therapy.

Questions to ask after your first few sessions— 

Not all discomfort is beneficial and not all therapists are the right fit. Remember, you are in control. You get to decide if your therapist is the right fit for you. Here are some things to consider after your first few sessions:

Is the discomfort a growing pain or is this demoralizing?
Am I uncomfortable because I am being presented with hard truths or is this conversation causing me to feel shame?
Who is talking more, me or my therapists? (It should be you, especially as time progresses.)
Do I feel validated in my feelings?
Is my therapist supporting my goals? 

Here are some red flags to look out for—

Minimizing lived experience—dismissing your experiences/circumstances as not a big deal and/or not treating your experiences and feelings as real and valid
Victim blaming—blaming you for unjust things that were done to you, i.e. “if you hadn’t been dressed like that this never would have happened.”
Toxic positivity—“just be happy and it will all be ok”
Spiritual bypassing—“just have faith” or “if you believe it/speak it you can manifest it”

Benefits of seeing a mental health professional—

While choosing a therapist can seem like a daunting task, when you find the right fit for you, the benefits far outweigh the work required. Your mental health is ultimately your responsibility. You are in control of seeking the help you need and advocating for yourself, but there are many resources available to help. A therapist, like a doctor, is trained to help you find the healing you need to function better in the world. They are there to listen, yes. But they are also there to provide critical understanding that will help you move toward a healthier lifestyle. They can help you reframe unhealthy patterns of thinking; they can counter harmful lies you have told yourself; and they can provide you with skills to better cope in a world full of stress and tragedy. Your mental health provider can be a life-line in times of crisis and they can be a consistent building-block in a life-long journey toward wholeness.

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