mental health counseling

When is it the Right Time to See a Professional for Your Mental Health?

By Tom Gettelman, PhD

Everyone experiences ups-and-downs in their mood, feels sad at times, worries about things they can and cannot control, becomes frustrated and irritable with others, and can feel isolated and lonely.  But how do you know when these “normal” feelings become strong enough, persistent enough, or overwhelming to the degree that it would be helpful to seek out professional assistance from a trained mental health professional?

The answer to this question typically comes down to how much your emotional well-being is negatively impacted by the feelings described above and how those feelings are impacting your daily life. Here are some signs to look for:

  • You are not sleeping as well as you used to and this creates fatigue that makes it difficult to manage your daily routine. The decrease in sleep seems to lead to an increase in irritability which leads to greater conflict with people you interact with.
  • You feel depressed and anxious most days of the week for weeks or months.
  • You are eating more or less than normal and you have gained or lost a significant amount of weight.
  • You are drinking alcohol more than before.
  • You can’t stop thinking about stressful things that have happened or that you fear will happen and these thoughts lead to excessive worry, anxiety, and restlessness.

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you have experienced anything like what is described above, ask yourself:

  • How have I tried to cope?
  • Do I feel overwhelmed because what usually works to get me out of a down mood isn’t working anymore?
  • Have other people who care about me said that I’m not myself and encouraged me to talk to someone about it?

Most people who reach out to a mental health professional do so when they become aware that the regular ways they used to deal with life’s challenges aren’t working anymore or aren’t working as effectively as before.  Often someone who cares about them will suggest talking to a professional.

Of course, if you are feeling so despondent and hopeless that you have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else, you should contact a mental health professional immediately or go to a local emergency department as they will be able to provide a thorough evaluation and help ensure you remain safe.

Who to Call When You’re Ready to Reach Out For Help

When someone decides that they are now ready to reach out for help, how do they know who to call?  Do you see a psychiatrist, therapist, psychologist, primary care doctor, someone at church, or someone else?  Here is a good way to find the proper healthcare professional when you need help with your mental well-being.

Your primary care physician (PCP) is typically able to provide screenings for depression and/or anxiety which informs them when to refer you to a mental health professional.  They also can prescribe front-line antidepressant and/or antianxiety medications.  However, most PCPs prefer that more complicated mental health issues, such as moderate to severe depression or bipolar disorder, be treated by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist and a therapist/psychologist.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed psychiatric training that provides them the necessary education and expertise to treat mild-to-severe mental illnesses.  For most psychiatric conditions, decades of research shows that combining the work done with a psychiatrist and seeing a therapist/psychologist for psychotherapy offers the most robust and sustained improvement.

What to Look For in Choosing a Therapist

One of the most important parts of reaching out to a therapist is the connection and comfort you feel with the person you are working with.  Feeling safe, understood, and challenged by your therapist is very important.  Therapy is often challenging and can be hard work.  However, let yourself be challenged by talking through painful experiences because the outcome can be life changing. Through therapy, individuals gradually learn new ways to cope and gain meaningful insight.

While psychologists are trained to provide psychological testing, the choice of what type of professional you see is a personal preference.  Remember, feeling safe, understood and comfortable with your therapist is typically more important than whether they have a LCSW or a Ph.D.  Finally, many places of worship have professional counselors as part of their staff.  If you feel connected to a religious or spiritual home asking about what they offer may be a helpful option for you.

Understand there is help and allow yourself the opportunity to connect with a mental health professional.  While many people believe they should be able to handle things on their own, or that talking to someone won’t help, in truth, reaching out for help is an example of internal strength and self-care. Taking care of yourself allows you to care for others better and return to living a satisfying and purposeful life.

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Dr. Tom Gettelman is Chief Clinical Officer and Director of Admissions at HopeWay, an accredited nonprofit residential and day mental health treatment center for adults located in Charlotte, N.C. and serving clients from this region and from across the nation. To learn more, visit

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