As a first-time patient in the mental health system, one can quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of mental health and the system designed to treat it. Just like medicine, it is a large beast that has developed over the course of many decades in many different ways — some of which don’t always make much sense.
There are a lot of different kinds of professionals who both diagnose and treat mental illness. But unlike in medicine where doctors still do most of the diagnosing and treating, you can be seen by a variety of mental health professionals from vastly different educational and experience backgrounds.
So you might wonder… Does the credentials after a professional’s name matter much? Should you try and see an MD no matter what? Or would a MSW or Psy.D. suffice?
The short answer is no, the educational background of the mental health professional will have little impact on the outcome of your treatment.
There is virtually no scientific research that suggests you will get a more positive outcome or get to a more positive outcome more quickly if you choose a higher-priced, more-educated professional.
What the research does show is that experience and specialization matters. Generally, the more experienced a professional is in a specific topic area, the more likely that person will be able to help you more quickly. To further confuse matters, some specializations award their own credentials that professionals then put after their name. While this is meant as a short-hand way to determine that a professional has specialized in a given field, to consumers it is just more maddening, meaningless initials.
So rather than focus on educational degrees, focus your search for a professional on how much experience they’ve had in treating your concern in the past, and whether they have a specific specialization in that concern. Typically you will only be able to discover this information by asking the professional directly. Sometimes their online directory profile or practice website will give you such detailed information.
Finding a mental health professional that is going to work best for you is more of an art than a science. The educational background of your psychotherapist, however, probably should not be a deciding factor in this process.
Your best bet is to determine what kinds of things are important to you and finding a professional that seems to fit with your needs and personality. Often times, finding the right therapist or mental health professional takes more than one try.
You may even need to “try on” a few professionals before finding one that feels right to you. Don’t be afraid to do this, as it is your well-being and treatment you’re investing in. This is a perfectly normal part of the process, one that you should be encouraged to participate in, in order to find the best fit for your mental health treatment needs.