Finding the right mental health professional for you

What’s the difference between a psychologist and a counsellor? Our guide to mental health professionals will give you the confidence to take the first step and find the right fit.

So, you’ve made the decision to get help with your mental health – well done. Asking for help is an important first step. Accessing a mental health professional is very common in Australia — 2.7 million people accessed 12.4 million Medicare-subsidised mental health-specific services in 2019–20.1

 

Finding the right mental health professional

But when you start to assess the options it may overwhelm you. Lots of questions pop up: do you need a psychologist? How do you find one? What do they even do?

Also, the idea of sharing your thoughts and feelings with a stranger can be intimidating. But it’s important to know that there’s a reason why they’re called ‘mental health professionals’. They are equipped to support you in a way that your friends and family can’t.

So, what do they do? 

Mental health professionals

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed specialist training to help people with emotional and mental health issues. Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat mental health issues, prescribe medication for mental health conditions, and some may also use talk-based therapies.

Psychologists

Psychologists use evidence-based approaches to understand causes of stress and mental health issues, and can provide more helpful, structured ways of managing them. Psychologists complete 6 year programs which are a combination of university qualifications and clinical placements. Clinical Psychologists specialise during that time, to focus on management of mental health conditions.

Better supported with 24/7 Mental Health Phone Support

When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it can be hard to know where to start. Members with hospital cover can talk to a mental health professional for advice, guidance and support anytime of the day or night.~

 

Counsellors

Counsellors help people work through their personal problems. They help people to recognise and define their emotional, health, mental and lifestyle problems and to understand themselves and their behaviour better. Counsellors are not required to complete specific professional education however many complete a Bachelor or Master of Counselling degree. A counsellor who is a member of Australian Counselling Association or Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia is required to demonstrate specific skills and experience.

Mental health social workers

Mental health social workers assist people who are having a hard time because of a mental health issue. All professional social workers hold a Bachelor or Masters of Social Work degree, however Mental Health Social Workers are those who are members of the Australian Association of Social Workers and who have gone on to specialise in mental health.

Occupational therapist

Occupational therapists work with people to help them better participate in everyday life. Professional occupational therapists hold a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy degree and may use some counselling skills to help understand the ways in which you participate in different parts of your life that might help with your health and mental health.

How do you find a mental health professional?

Everyone’s approach is different but a good place to start is with a recommendation from your GP because they’ll have knowledge of the mental health professionals in the local area. They may also be able to provide you with a mental health support plan, which allows you to access Medicare rebates for sessions with a mental health professional. The Australian Psychological Society has a find a psychologist tool that can be searched by location and area of practice. The Australian Counselling Association has a find a counsellor tool and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia has a find a therapist tool.

According to Medibank’s Sarah Kewming, an accredited mental health social worker, location is an important factor to consider as well. “Think about whether it is going to be a place where you’ll have to drive 45 minutes and it’s going to be a drain and if you’re going to feel a lack of motivation in getting there, or is it in a place where it’s easily accessible by public transport if you don’t have a car,” says Kewming.

“Check if a location is easy and accessible to you because it does impact on ones motivation … therapy needs to be accessible to you but it also needs to be comfortable, and it needs to be appropriate as well.”

If you can’t get to the location of a mental health professional in your area, it’s okay. A lot of mental health professionals offer telehealth services. Look for telehealth options when doing your research. If you have Medibank hospital cover, you can also call the 24/7 Mental Health Phone Support Service for information on services available in your area.~

Consider the costs

Before you commit to a mental health professional, you may want to understand what costs might be involved.

Ask your chosen mental health professional what they charge, and if you’ll be able to claim rebates for their services.

You can claim rebates on psychology and some mental health social worker consultations through Australia’s public health system – Medicare. To claim rebates using Medicare, you will need to see your GP first for a mental health treatment plan.

If you want to use your private health insurance instead, you should check your cover includes mental health support and whether your chosen mental health professional is eligible. For Medibank covers, you must see a registered psychologist or Medibank recognised counsellor.# You can read more about using your cover for Mental Health Support here.

It’s also important to note that you can’t claim a Medicare rebate and claim on your health insurance for the same session.

Questions to ask before you see a mental health professional

Before you book you may want to ask a few basic questions to learn more about a psychologist’s experience and their style, as well as how much it may cost.

“You need to start by deciding whether you want a male or female therapist. It’s really important because you’ve got to feel comfortable,” says Kewming.

“Ask if they have got experience in working with whatever you’re going to therapy for and make sure that their clinical qualifications are up to date.

“And just ensure that you feel comfortable when you make that first contact and having that first conversation that you feel like you can ask those questions and you’re not being judged … and they’re accepting and they’re willing to provide you with that information because that actually shows a sign of respect between the client, and that the client is going to put trust in the therapist and the therapist reciprocates.”

How to manage your expectations

A lot of success in the mental health space comes from a strong relationship between a client and a psychologist, also known as a therapeutic alliance. Make a list of what you want to work on with a psychologist and use that to measure your progress. While you’re at it, outline what you think makes a strong relationship and look for those traits in a psychologist.

“One of the most important considerations you need to make in the first couple of sessions is: am I going to get along with this person? It’s as simple as that because some personalities just don’t gel … it’s not an automatic match just because [someone] is a psychologist,” says Hewming. “ … It’s about finding the person that you’re comfortable with, and when I say ‘comfortable’ I mean the exchange of conversation and the exchange of therapy, comfortable in the actual space where you are having the therapy … do you feel like you’re being heard and not judged, feeling like you’re going at your own pace, and if you’re not going at the pace that’s required, that you’re able to give feedback and they’re giving feedback appropriately.” Be open to the process but keep in mind that you don’t have to stay with the first psychologist you choose. Seeing a psychologist is a new experience but trust your gut if one doesn’t feel like a good fit.

“Being open and transparent is your best option … if you can negotiate through that and get to the other side and feel comfortable to move forward, that’s okay, but if you can’t there is no shame at all in being able to tell each other that it’s not working,” says Hewming.

“Like in any relationship it’s okay to say ‘I don’t think this is a good fit’ and it’s okay to find someone else.”

Remember, you are always in control when it comes to prioritising your mental health. Ask lots of questions, do a bit of research and assess how a psychologist or other mental health professional factors into your life. You can read more about what to expect when you see a psychologist here.


Need a little extra support?

24/7 Mental Health Phone Support

Members with Hospital cover~ can talk with a mental health professional over the phone in relation to any mental health or emotional concern, 24 hours a day 7 days a week on 1800 644 325.


Medibank Better Minds App 

Want to manage your mental health on your own terms, in your own time? Medibank’s Better Minds app provides personalized support and follow ups by health professionals for those at risk, all included in your hospital cover.

Learn more 

No waiting periods on psychology and counselling consultations

You shouldn’t have to wait for your health insurance to claim for mental health support. That’s why there are no waiting periods for counselling and psychology consultations on Medibank extras and packaged products.§

Read more about using your cover

References

1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Mental health services in Australia, July 2021

Things you need to know

~    OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

#    Check your cover summary to see if these services are included on your extras cover and if annual limits apply.  Counsellors must be registered with Australian Counselling Association, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Australian Traditional Medicine Society.   

Not available for members with extras only cover, Overseas Student Health Cover or Overseas Workers or Visitors Health Cover.

§    For members with mental health support included in their Extras cover. Annual limits apply. Counsellors must be registered with Australian Counselling Association, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Australian Traditional Medicine Society.   

While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees). 

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