ABCs of Mental Health Care

Seeking Help

print Working with a Mental Healthcare Specialist

If you or your loved one is seeking help for mental illness, you are about to enter into a very important relationship that requires your active participation. If you were to break your arm, wouldn’t you ask your doctor lots of questions about treatment, recovery, your role at home in your medical care, etc.? A “broken” psyche needs just as much tender loving care from both your doctor and you. Read on for suggested questions and topics to discuss with your mental health specialist before and during your treatment.

It’s your life — be choosy!

Perhaps the most important step on the road to recovery from mental illness is loving yourself enough to insist on the right specialist for you. If your symptoms cloud your judgment so much that you don’t trust yourself at this time, let someone you do trust help you select a doctor, therapist or counselor. Understandably, you might also be limited by your health plan or insurance coverage as you look for help. The bottom line, however, is that you will be the one to enter into a working relationship with the mental health specialist you ultimately choose. Consider some of the following recommendations as you look for quality care:

  • It is reasonable to ask the professional if she has had experience and success in treating a problem such as yours.
  • Rapport is important — can you talk freely to this person?
  • Ask what strategies he has used with other patients like you. This will clue you in to whether your attitudes about treatment are compatible. You need to know up front if he encourages conventional or alternative treatment tools (medication versus acupuncture, for example).

Getting started

Once you’ve made the vital move to seek help and think you’ve found the right specialist for you, you are still very much involved in the healing process. You and your doctor can plan your strategy for recovery together. Yes, he is the specialist, but you know yourself much better than anyone else. As the two of you discuss your treatment plan, be sure to ask about specific issues such as these:

  • how often and for how many weeks you are likely to meet
  • setbacks (worsening of symptoms) you could possibly experience with treatment of your particular problem. Before a setback, ask your doctor what to do if symptoms worsen. For example, what if you have thoughts of suicide? Know the signs and have a ready plan of action to get immediate attention.
  • what you need to do outside of your meeting with the specialist to foster recovery
  • realistic changes you can expect after the treatment process
  • potential for a relapse

Talking about medicine

It’s possible that you will need to add one very important discussion topic to the list above—medication. Psychiatric medication can play a tremendous role in restoring your life back to normal. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) maintains that it is important to be well informed about medicine you may need.

If your doctor recommends using anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic or any other medication, you must continue all through treatment to assess its effectiveness and monitor potential side effects. This advice applies as well if your doctor prescribes alternative or homeopathic medicine (even acupuncture can have side effects).

You might not know that some psychiatric medications have side effects that resemble the very problem you might suffer, as well as potential changes in weight, sexual function, energy, etc. Here are a few points to discuss with the doctor about the medicine you are using:

  • what the medicine is called and why it is being prescribed for you
  • how long you should use it—and how often
  • the lowest possible effective dose
  • what to expect going on and off this drug
  • other substances or medications that mix dangerously with it. The NIMH advises you to bring your doctor a list of all prescribed medicines (dosage too), over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements and even herbal teas you are using.
  • risk of tolerance and addiction
  • side effects—especially ones that mimic the very problem you are treating. Be sure to have a thorough understanding of what to expect on a particular medicine. If you cannot tolerate the side effects, let your doctor tell you what to do—it may not be in your best interest to stop the medication suddenly.

Trust your instincts

The recommendations above may help you converse with the specialist and be proactive in your recovery. Try not to dismiss unusual symptoms and side effects as you go through treatment. Be willing to tell the professional everything that is bothering you—that’s what he gets paid for!

Remember also that you are not obligated to keep seeing a particular mental health specialist if you do not feel comfortable with her. Although conditions such as depression and anxiety can color your thoughts in such a way that very little seems right in your life, try to honor your instincts or feelings of comfort with the person you choose to help you recover. Feel free to tell her if you are not confident with her methods or suggestions—if she is professional, she will help you find someone more suitable for you.

Be sure to check out the resources listed below for checklists of side effects and more questions to ask.

If you want to know more about a specific clinician, you may contact her state’s licensing board’s Web site and via the National Practitioner Data Bank ( to see if there is any history of malpractice suits or licensing sanctions.


“Dialogue for Recovery”
National Mental Health Association The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, MD. William Morrow and Company Inc., 1989.
By Laurie M. Stewart
© 2002 Achieve Solutions

Sources: “Dialogue for Recovery,” National Mental Health Association; “Medications,” National Institute of Mental Health.


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