If you are looking for a health care psychologist, remember that the most important characteristics to look for are someone who (1) understands you, (2) accepts and supports you, and (3) fits your particular personality and preferences. These characteristics are more important than the psychologist’s particular professional specialty, theoretical approach, gender, or age.
It is advantageous to look for a health care psychologist who is licensed and trained in providing psychotherapy. Finding a psychologist who possesses interpersonal skills and a level of trustworthiness that meets your standards is easier than it may appear. The best option is to get recommendations from other qualified health care providers. Also talk to someone who has seen a psychologist and found the experience to be satisfying and helpful. When you have a couple of names, make an appointment and try out a session to see how you feel about the possibility for building a relationship with that professional. Determine how comfortable and accepted you feel with this particular person. Both experts and research suggest that continuing to see someone whom you do not feel understands and accepts you in the initial sessions may actually work on your behalf.
In your first session, you may want to ask the following questions:
1) What are your academic degrees and professional qualifications?
2) Are you licensed by the state as a psychologist?
3) Has your license ever been revoked or suspended?
4) How long do you think I will need to come?
5) What do you think my problem is? Do I have a diagnosis?
6) Do you think you can work successfully with me?
You can get an idea of your level of compatibility with the psychologist by asking some of the following questions:
1) What is your success rate and how do you measure it?
2) What assessment procedures do you use to identify problems?
3) How do you develop a treatment plan?
4) What is my role in the treatment process?
The term psychotherapist is generic and unlicensed. Be careful of anyone identifying and advertising as a “psychotherapist.” In most states, anyone can call himself or herself a psychotherapist since it is not a legally protected title. Always seek health care services from someone licensed or certified to practice by the particular state in which you reside.
Other Mental Health Professions:
Most states licenses certify five mental health professions: psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, counselors, and psychiatric nurses. Below we identify their formal training and particular competencies.
Psychologists possess doctoral degrees in psychology (Ph.D., Psy.D.), generally have the most training in psychotherapy, and have spent one or two additional years as interns. They alone provide psychological assessment and testing. In a few states, psychologists also prescribe medication. Tip: Look for a psychologist who has a doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology, not in a related field.
Psychiatrists possess doctoral degrees in medicine (M.D., D.O.) and generally have completed a residency in psychiatry. They prescribe medication and specialize in biological treatments. Tips: Look for a psychiatrist who is board certified in psychiatry and ascertain if the psychiatrist will only prescribe medication or will also offer psychotherapy (only a small percentage of psychiatrists now conduct psychotherapy).
Clinical social workers typically possess a master’s degree in social work or social sciences (M.S.W., M.A.) followed by supervised experience leading to state licensure and eligibility in the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW). Clinical social workers offer psychotherapy and specialize in community work. Tip: Look for a social worker who was extensively trained in psychotherapy, not in social services or administration.
Counselors possess a master’s degree in counseling or an associated field (M.A., M.S.) and are certified after experience and completion of a national examination. Counselors offer psychotherapy in many settings. Tips: Look for a counselor certified by the state (not simply a professional association), and search for one whose degree is in individual or clinical counseling, not career counseling (unless you are seeking direction regarding your career).
Psychiatric nurses are registered nurses (R.N., B.S.N.) who possess a master’s of science degree in nursing (M.S.N.). Some go on to earn the Nurse Practitioner (NP) designation and then can prescribe medication typically under supervision. Psychiatric nurses also offer psychotherapy. Tip: Look for a psychiatric nurse who specializes in psychotherapy, rather than administration or hospital care.
Individual states may license other mental health professionals. California and Pennsylvania, for example, recognize and regulate Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT), but many states do not. When in doubt about the licensure status of an individual practitioner, consult that state’s webpage.