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Mental health professionals

8-minute read

What are the types of mental health professionals

Many types of health professionals work in mental health care, including:

  • your doctor – general practitioners can diagnose and treat mental health disorders, as well as advise you and refer you to other mental health professionals
  • psychiatrists - these medical doctors have done specialised training in mental health – they can diagnose and treat mental illness, both with psychotherapy (talking therapies) and/or medication
  • mental health nurses - nurses with a specialist qualification in mental health; they help people work towards recovery from mental health issues
  • psychologists - provide treatment of mental health problems with psychotherapy; they are not medical doctors and can't prescribe medication
  • counsellors – these therapists help talk you through challenges in your life, in order to find solutions and to develop problem-solving skills
  • occupational therapists - help people be independent, develop coping strategies and overcome mental health issues
  • Community mental health workers - provide help and coordination in the community for people with mental health problems, who may also have other problems, such as substance abuse, poverty and social problems
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers – mental health workers who deliver care in a culturally appropriate way and who also provide cultural education to people outside the cultural community
  • mental health social workers - are trained in assessment and treatment of mental health issues and work with people who have mental health problems in a holistic practical way to manage social factors, such as housing, employment and relationships, to help them get well

Most mental health professionals have undergone years of study and training. They all have different skills to support your mental health. Some can diagnose mental health conditions, some can treat mental health problems using different types of psychotherapy and counselling, and some are able to prescribe medications. Some are involved in education or in organising care for people who have complex mental health needs.

Even within the same profession, different professionals can have different skills, specialties and different styles. For example, one psychiatrist may specialise in schizophrenia; another may specialise in eating disorders. Some counsellors specialise in a particular area, for example, drug or alcohol abuse, family therapy, or anxiety and depression.

How do I find a mental health professional?

If you're searching for help with a mental health problem, try talking to your doctor first. They can assess you, and can refer you to another health professional if needed. They will be able to suggest the best type of mental health professional to help you. In some cases, your doctor will treat you themselves. Here are some tips for talking to your doctor about mental health issues.

You need a referral from your doctor to see some health professionals, such as psychiatrists.

If you live in a rural or remote area, you may not have access to all the different types of mental health professionals. Talk to your doctor about whether online programs or therapies might help you. There are many online mental health resources that are backed up by contact from a mental health specialist.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What questions should I ask?

When choosing a health professional, ask questions such as:

  • What problems can they help me with?
  • What results can I expect?
  • What qualifications do they have?
  • How much will treatment cost?
  • Do I need a referral?
  • How often will I need appointments?
  • Are appointments available on days or at times that work for me?

Most types of health professionals must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA). You can check if a health professional requires registration and is registered or make a complaint about a health professional on the AHPRA website.

Counsellors and psychotherapists are not required to have completed any specific training, or to have any experience, to practise in Australia. They cannot register with AHPRA. But there are professional bodies in Australia for counsellors that guarantee that their members have met a certain level of training and experience, e.g. Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What can I expect when I visit a mental health professional?

At your first visit with a mental health professional, they will want to know what your symptoms are and what is concerning you. They will want to know your medical history. They will ask a number of questions, which might include:

  • why you have made an appointment
  • what you hope to achieve
  • whether you or anyone in your family has a history of mental illness, such as depression
  • whether you have had any previous mental health episodes
  • your relationship with your family and friends
  • your stress levels and any particular stressful events in your past
  • your feelings about your job and your relationships
  • whether you use drugs and how much alcohol you drink
  • the risk of you harming yourself or others
  • whether you have any other existing medical conditions

At the end of your visit, your health professional may be able to make a diagnosis, they may set up a management plan for the treatment of your mental health problem, or they may suggest you see another type of healthcare professional or someone who specialises in a particular area.

Do mental healthcare professionals keep things confidential?

Most conversations you have with a mental health professional will be confidential, and that confidentiality is protected by law in Australia. However, there are some things that they do not have to keep confidential – for example, if you are at risk of harm or there is a risk you may harm others. They may also have to report crimes, depending on what they are. You can always ask them about confidentiality before you start.

What if I need to change my mental health professional?

There are many reasons why you might want to change your health professional, such as:

  • you aren't feeling better
  • they are difficult to travel to or the appointment times don't suit
  • you just don't get on or they don't ‘get' you

It's a good idea to first talk to the person you're seeing. They might be able to change the appointment times or move the appointments to a different location.

If you decide to change, you can ask for your medical notes to be transferred to your new health professional. This will help your new health professional understand you better and it will make the transition easier. Don't be put off if the first person you try doesn't work out. It's worth persevering so you can get the right support.

What does it cost to see a mental health professional?

The cost of seeing a health professional depends on the type of health professional you see. Medicare covers some or all of the costs of using some mental health services.

If you have a diagnosed mental illness, your doctor can provide you with a mental health treatment plan . This provides a Medicare rebate for up to 20 sessions a year with some mental health specialists.

If a doctor or psychologist bulk bills, Medicare will cover the cost of the appointment. Otherwise, there will be a gap that you have to pay. Ask about fees up front.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2022

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