Mental health refers to psychological, social, behavioral, and emotional aspects of health. Mental health affects all aspects of a person’s life from how they relate to others, the ability to function at home and at work, the ability to cope with stress, making choices, to overall well-being and quality of life. Poor mental health can impact these and more and even affect physical health.

While mental health has long been regarded as less important than physical health and has been stigmatized, this is changing. It is being recognized as a crucial part of overall well-being. Good mental health care is also increasingly recognized as important for prevention, treatment, and management of mental health conditions. However, finding good mental health care can still be challenging because of lack of awareness, stigma, and other reasons.

What is Mental Health Care?

Good mental health care encompasses a wide range of services beyond simply receiving treatment for a mental health condition. Care includes assessment, or screening of patients for symptoms of mental illness. Assessments may then lead to a diagnosis or a mental condition, such as depression, anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder. Mental health care also includes treatment for these mental illnesses and ongoing evaluations.

Prevention and education are also components of comprehensive mental health care. This means educating individuals and the public about mental illnesses, signs of mental health issues, and how to maintain good mental health. This contributes to prevention, as does training and practice of good mental hygiene: relaxation techniques, stress management, and other healthy lifestyle choices.

Treatments for Mental Illness

Mental health care includes many factors, like diagnosis, prevention, and education, but treatment remains one of the most important components of comprehensive care. Treatment is so important because mental illnesses are real health conditions, and much like physical health conditions, they do not get better without treatment. There is no cure for mental illnesses, but when treated like chronic conditions they can be managed. Some of the types of treatments that patients may need include:

  • Crisis and emergency care. Mental health emergencies are much like medical emergencies and require immediate treatment. This kind of care usually involves restraint to protect the patient and others as well as medication.
  • Therapy. Therapy is the backbone of mental health care. It is a long-term treatment that helps patients learn to be more aware of their symptoms, what causes them, and how to make positive changes that will improve them.
  • Medications. There are several types of medications that can be used to treat mental illnesses, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and antipsychotics. These are generally used along with therapy, not as substitutes for ongoing treatment.
  • Alternative treatments. Patients with mental health conditions may also benefit from a range of alternative and supplemental treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy, biofeedback, magnetic stimulation, and vagus nerve stimulation.

Types of Mental Health Professionals

There are many different professionals with varying titles that offer mental health care. It is important for patients to understand the differences between these caregivers, their levels of training, and what they can and cannot provide during care:

  • Psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed medical school and specialized in psychiatry. These doctors can diagnose mental illnesses, conduct therapy sessions, and prescribe and monitor medications. A psychiatrist may have additional training in specialties, like childhood mental health or substance abuse.
  • Nurse Specialists. Psychiatric nurses and mental health nurse practitioners may provide similar types of care, including assessment and diagnosis as well as therapy. Some may be able to prescribe medications, depending on the state in which they practice.
  • Psychologists. Psychologists are mental health professionals that hold a Ph.D. in psychology. They may use the title doctor but are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medications. They assess and diagnose patients and provide therapy. Licensing for psychologists varies by state.
  • Therapists and Counselors. These mental health professionals typically have master’s degrees in psychology and provide therapy. Most states require some type of licensing for therapists, including Licensed Professional Counselor or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
  • Clinical Social Workers. Clinical social workers are similar to therapists. They can assess a person’s mental health and provide therapy. They are licensed by the state in which they practice and hold master’s degrees in social work. They also work as case managers.
  • Others. Family and primary care physicians may provide some degree of unspecialized mental health care, including the prescribing of medications. Nurses without specialties as well as unskilled health care workers may provide assistance in mental health settings. Pastoral counselors have special education in pastoral counseling and are trained to provide therapy in pastoral settings.

Settings for Mental Health Care

Mental health care can be provided in a variety of settings. For psychiatric emergencies or for patients who need immediate supervision to prevent harm to themselves and others, care is usually provided in a psychiatric hospital or the psychiatric department of a general hospital. This type of care is short-term and is usually followed by long-term mental health care in a different setting.

Residential facilities dedicated to mental health care provide intensive treatment in a safe setting for weeks or months at a time. Some of these facilities treat only mental illnesses, while others include addiction and substance use disorders as well. Some residential facilities specialize in certain types of mental illness, like mood disorders. Mental health care is also provided on an outpatient basis. This includes private practices and community mental health centers. Clinics may also provide mental health care.

Getting Quality Mental Health Care

It may not always be as obvious when mental health care is of poor quality as it is to determine whether or not you are getting good medical care. Better awareness and education about mental health can help, but patients and their loved ones need to be proactive and to be their own advocates in ensuring good care. Any type of mental health care should begin with a professional psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis. Without this, treatment cannot address an individual’s real needs.

It is also important when seeking mental health care to be sure that the providers are licensed appropriately. A lot of people feel more comfortable beginning with their primary care doctors who can make referrals to licensed mental health care workers. Residential facilities should be carefully vetted for quality, which includes asking questions, visiting, talking to patients checking for cleanliness and safety, and ensuring a facility is licensed and adequately staffed.

Mental health care is important to overall well-being and health. Without good mental health care, including prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, all areas of a person’s life and health can suffer. To ensure you get good quality care, always do your homework. Ask questions, check licensing and references, and don’t be afraid to change caregivers if you are not satisfied with the level or quality of care.