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Think you need mental health care? Here's a place to start

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Psychotherapist Anissa Keyes works with a client in her St. Paul office.
Half of adults in the U.S. will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, but treatment options abound. Here are some tips for starting your journey toward better mental health. Here, psychotherapist Anissa Keyes works with a client in her St. Paul office.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2016

Updated: May 9 | Posted: May 8

Seeking mental health treatment may seem like an intimidating, confusing process at first. 

However, it is possible. And this guide can help you get started. 

Half of all adults in the U.S.  will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, but treatment options abound.

Below are some tips for starting your journey toward better mental health: 

When to get help

Most people who seek counseling are affected by three common issues, according to Mary Weeks, executive director of Walk-In Counseling Center, which has several locations in the Twin Cities:

• Depression

• Anxiety

• Relationship issues

But often, Weeks said, those are symptoms of underlying issues like substance use disorder, domestic violence, trauma, financial insecurity, or dealing with grief and loss. 

The symptoms can be temporary. But if left untreated, can lead to chronic mental illnesses, like childhood trauma affecting someone into adulthood. 

Temporary or situational symptoms may be manageable without professional treatment. But, if you feel overwhelmed or your symptoms prevent you from engaging from work, school, or social situations, it may be time to find appropriate care.

See your primary care doctor

If you have a doctor, they're the best person to assess your care needs. If not, check with your insurance provider to find one. Case managers and service coordinators can also help in this process.

A primary care doctor can make a diagnosis, and prescribe treatment or medications, if necessary. Or they might refer you to a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or another mental health professional. 

See a mental health professional

There are many different kinds of mental health professionals that you might be referred to. Mental Health America has a breakdown of who does what

Among the most common are psychiatrists and therapists or psychologists.

• Psychiatrists:

 These are medical doctors specializing in mental health treatment. They can diagnose the cause of mental health symptoms and prescribe medications along with other therapy treatments.

• Therapists/psychologists:

 A primary care doctor or psychiatrist might refer you to a therapist or psychologist. Some people see a therapist or psychologist without a doctor's referral, too. While most of them can't prescribe medication, they can help identify a type of therapy that's best and either treat you or recommend someone who can. 

How to pay for help

If you have insurance, try to stay in your preferred network. Ask your doctor to provide in-network referrals, if you need treatment from a mental health professional.

No insurance? There are walk-in counseling centers that provide free services, and some therapists will offer care on a sliding scale to fit your income. 

There are also nonprofits like Open Path Psychotherapy Collective that matches people in need with therapists who are willing to work at a reduced rate. 

Medication types and how they works

Here's a list of the common classes of mental health medications and how they work from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read more on NAMI's website.

• Antidepressants:

These medications improve symptoms of depression by affecting the brain chemicals associated with emotion, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are newer antidepressants that may have fewer side effects than older drugs
Some antidepressants may be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As always, ask your doctor about what treatment options are right for you.

• Anti-anxiety medication:

Certain medications work solely to reduce the emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety. Benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax) can treat social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. These medicines work quickly and are very effective in the short-term. ...
People who stop taking benzodiazepines suddenly may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. 

• Antipsychotics:

Antipsychotics developed in the mid-20th century are often referred to as first-generation or typical antipsychotics, while antipsychotics developed more recently are referred to as second-generation or atypical antipsychotics. These medications reduce or eliminate symptoms of psychosis (delusions and hallucinations) by affecting the brain chemical called dopamine.
All antipsychotics play a vital role in treating schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Second-generation antipsychotics can also be used to treat acute mania, bipolar disorder and treatment-resistant depression.

• Mood stabilizers:

Mood stabilizers commonly treat the mood swings associated with bipolar disorder. The oldest of them, lithium, has been in use for over 50 years and has proven very effective, particularly for bipolar disorder, type I. 
Newer mood stabilizers, many of which were originally used to treat seizure disorders, may work better than lithium for some people. Mood stabilizers can prevent manic or hypomanic episodes and depressive episodes.


Editor's note: This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive guide; rather, it's a place to begin. The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have more information on mental health resources, too. You can find suicide prevention resources here or by calling 1-800-273-8255.