By Sonyia Richardson – July 8, 2015


When you need help for life stressors, anxieties and depressive symptoms, accessing it through the mental health system often feels like a complex and unsolvable maze.

The paths to your solution may only become more complex when you discover that available services to address your concerns may be dependent on age, insurance coverage, severity of condition, and healthcare providers. This leads some individuals to unfortunately rely on local emergency rooms for treatment when often this is not the best route.

Recent statistics from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) reveal that at least 20 percent of adults suffer from a mental illness each year, with approximately 60 percent receiving no mental health services. Research shows that early intervention can reduce long-term impact. So at the first sign of negative symptoms, you should get help.

Early symptoms may include difficulty functioning at work, not being able to get out of the bed, loss of appetite, excessive worry and depressed mood.

First Steps

First, consult with your primary care physician or a counseling agency. Some physicians practice integrated care and have counseling services available onsite. If your primary care physician believes you might benefit from more comprehensive assessment and treatment, he or she may refer you directly to a counseling agency.

A licensed clinician at a counseling agency will complete a comprehensive assessment of any mental health concerns. These clinicians may be licensed clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors, licensed psychologists or licensed marriage and family therapists. Based on the assessment, it may be recommended that you receive individual, family or group counseling services. Counseling services may be provided by a variety of trained individuals. You should seek out services with a clinician who has experience with your areas of concern and success with treatment.

Testing and Medication

If you require psychological testing, you may be referred to a licensed clinical psychologist. Licensed clinical psychologists are able to complete formalized testing, including IQ testing, personality assessment, behavioral assessment and clinical interviews. They are able to test for conditions such as ADHD and PTSD and offer recommendations based on test results.

If you require or seek treatment for your condition through the use of medications, you will need to see a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a physician specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. They are able to prescribe medications for your condition if they believe it is necessary. They may work in collaboration with your therapist to determine if your symptoms are decreasing and your condition is improving. You may also receive treatment from a psychiatrist if you are experiencing suicidal or homicidal thoughts.

A newer option or path available is seeking support with a peer support specialists. These are trained individuals who are living in recovery with mental illness and/or substance use disorder who provide support to other people. If you want to interact with individuals who understand or share similar experiences and are on the road the recovery, then this may be an option.

The Path Forward

At the first signs of symptoms, follow these steps: 1) list the symptoms are you experiencing; 2) decide whether to consult with your primary care physician or seek out a counseling agency for an assessment; 3) seek a comprehensive clinical assessment to determine recommendations for treatment; 4) follow up with recommendations.

Following these recommendations will assist in getting you to the right services, at the right time, with the right provider.

Sonyia Richardson, MSW, LCSW, is a lecturer in the School of Social Work at UNC Charlotte and owner of Another Level Counseling and Consultation, a Charlotte-based mental health agency. She is a licensed clinical social worker and focuses research on administration skills for behavioral healthcare providers.

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