When do I need to see a mental healthcare professional?

By Anup Sharma, M.D
8 min read

There are millions of Americans with mental health conditions that pursue treatment by working with professionals. Mental health professionals include psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed therapists, nurse practitioners, and social workers. Working with qualified professionals allows for one to understand mental health condition(s), receive compassionate care and pursue helpful treatment.As in other areas of medicine, mental health providers may have expertise in specific types of mental health conditions or focus on particular types of treatments. Before pursuing mental health care, a common question for individuals and families is determining “When do I or a loved one need to see a mental health provider?”

The Challenge
Answering this question can be challenging because mental health can fluctuate due to a number of internal and external factors such as changes in brain development, interpersonal relationships or major life events (everything from getting married, having a baby, to even losing a loved one). Consequently, for some individuals, it can be hard to pinpoint when there is a clear need to be evaluated by a mental health professional. This can create a period of confusion and uncertainty in determining when to seek evaluation. In other cases, individuals are regularly suffering from mental health symptoms and clearly need to seek a mental health provider. However, because of the stigma associated with mental health diagnosis and treatment, there may be resistance to engage in treatment.

When to Seek Professional Help
Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t have to be “crazy” or the brink of crisis to seek mental health treatment. On the other hand, mental health treatment isn’t necessary for every life challenge or struggle, especially if you have a strong support system or are consistent with therapeutic lifestyle practices that maintain your mental health.

Here are some questions that can help determine whether it is time to see a mental health professional:
• Are your thoughts, emotions or behaviors out of control to the point that it is significantly impairing your ability to function at school/work or maintain healthy interpersonal relationships?
• Have you been struggling with a major life event such as medical illness, loss of a loved one, or other situation which affects your mental health and ability to function on a regular basis?
• Have you turned to drugs or alcohol to self-treat your distressing symptoms?
• Are you confused or fraught with emotions and need an unbiased individual to help provide perspective, or navigate through challenging decisions?
• Are you distressed and feel at times that life is no longer worth living?
• Have you already pursued a number of lifestyle changes or practices to improve your mental health, but find that you continue to have regular distressful symptoms?
• Has a family member, mentor or friend expressed serious or repeated concerns about your mental health?  

Overcoming Resistance
Even after acknowledging the need to seek mental health care, you may have reluctance in seeking mental health treatment. It is important to understand the nature of this resistance. Are you worried about how others might perceive you?Do you believe that you should be able to handle your mental health on your own without help? Are you concerned that you will automatically be prescribed medication? Are you concerned that you will have to engage in treatment for a long time or for the rest of your life? Once you identify why you are averse to seeking treatment, you are more likely to move forward in receiving care that could have a positive impact in your life.  

Where to Go for Mental Health Care
This will depend on a number of factors including the nature of the individual (e.g. college student vs. older adult), the nature of the problem (e.g. depression vs. substance abuse), and the region where you live in the country. Often, the best place to start is by inquiring with your local mental health organization. Your primary care provider is also a good person to talk to, as they likely will have additional references that you can contact. Local mental health support groups can also provide references based on patient experiences in your region. Specialized services and advanced treatments may be available at your local university or academic center.  

Work Together
You may have great insights into your own patterns of thought or behavior. You may even have the life-skills needed to overcome the challenges you are facing with your mental health. Nevertheless, there may be times when additional help is needed to gain additional insight, get healthier and move forward in life. It is important to remember that you are not alone and that there are a number of dedicated professionals who have the experience needed to help you deal with mental health challenges so that you can thrive in life.

Anup Sharma, M.D. is a Research Fellow in Neuropsychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He has completed training in biochemistry, neuroscience, and psychiatry and is currently studying how stress and inflammation impact the development of psychiatric disorders. He is interested in evaluating treatments to help reduce disease burden in patients with depression and other psychiatric disorders.

For more insights into the benefits of therapy, check out the below articles:
Why Those Labels Aren’t Helping You
Where To Start in Finding a Mental Health Therapist
When do I need to see a mental healthcare professional?
Benefits of Virtual Therapy (And Where To Find It)

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