What if your investigations lead you to the conclusion that your family needs the assistance of a mental health professional? Where do you go for help? Naturally, you’ll want to begin with prayer. Ask the Lord to supply the insight you need to make this important decision with wisdom and discernment. You’re looking for a counselor who is not only formally trained, qualified, and highly skilled, but a good match for you and your child in terms of personality, temperament, values, and basic beliefs. The Lord knows your situation, and He can lead you to the person best suited to provide you with the help you’re seeking.
Once you’ve put the situation in God’s hands, it’s time to begin your quest in earnest. The first step is to get an idea of exactly what you’re looking for.
Types of Mental Health Professionals
Just because people are titled “counselor” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re properly trained. Look for counselors who are licensed by the state in which they practice. There are a number of different licenses, degrees, levels of training, and certifications represented among the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of mental health professionals practicing across the country. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common variations on the theme:
Psychiatrist: A medical doctor (MD) who specializes in diagnosing physiologically based mental health problems and prescribing appropriate medications.
Psychologist: A clinician who holds either a PhD, PsyD or EdD degree in the field of psychology or education (four or more years of post-graduate study). Licensed psychologists assess mental health issues, diagnose specific problems, and devise treatments designed to meet the client’s need. Most are not qualified to prescribe medications, but a few states allow psychologists with special training to prescribe a limited number of psychiatric medications.
Master’s Level Therapists: There are at least three groups of practitioners that fall under this heading: licensed professional counselors (LPC), licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), and licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). Licensing requirements and procedures as well as exact titles may vary from state to state.
School Psychologist: A special category of Master’s Level Therapist associated exclusively with the educational system, school psychologists tend to specialize in the assessment and treatment of learning disabilities and other issues related to a child’s performance in the classroom.
Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC) Level I, II, and III: These are counselors who specialize in the treatment of substance abuse (three different levels of certification).
Pastoral Counselor: Clergy members who advise individuals concerning specific psychological, emotional, or spiritual needs, pastoral counselors may or may not have any formal training, credentials, or licensing in the field of psychology.
Types of Treatment
Once you have a handle on the different kinds of mental health professionals who are available to serve you, you’ll want to research some of the common treatment techniques and therapeutic approaches. Generally speaking, we can divide them into three categories:
Talk therapy: This is the standard cognitive-behavioral approach to counseling where you talk to the therapist.
Experiential therapy: These therapies involve physical interaction and can include play therapy, art therapy, and animal-assisted therapy. With this technique, the person in therapy focuses on the activities and, through the experience, begins to identify emotions.
Family systems therapy: In this variation on talk therapy that includes the entire family, a family therapist works with the family as an organic unit rather than working with family members as individual parts.
For obvious reasons, experiential therapy often works best with young kids. It also has advantages in the case of some teenagers, especially boys, who struggle with verbal skills. You may have to experiment a bit to find out which approach works best with your child. Whatever you do, we strongly recommend that you look for a practitioner whose methods help kids build new and better skills.
It’s important to know that the duration and effectiveness of counseling will depend to a great extent on the severity of the issues your child is facing. A brief series of sessions with a therapist probably won’t do the trick if profound trauma is present (as, for example, when there has been sexual abuse or serious neglect).
Determining Your Family’s Needs
Knowing what therapies are available is only a small part of the picture. Even more important is the process of determining the precise characteristics and traits you’re looking for in a counselor. It’s crucial to keep an eye out for a therapist who not only fits your child’s personality, style, and specific needs, but also yours as well. This can be a complicated process.
Take the question of personality. In some cases an extroverted clinician may overwhelm an introverted client. In others, however, the health care professional’s extroversion may be precisely what’s needed to draw your child out.
You’ll also want to consider the practitioner’s sex. A young girl who has been sexually abused by a man may feel more comfortable with a female therapist. On the other hand, a male counselor may be in a better position to help her work through her issues with men.
Ultimately, of course, only you and your child can decide exactly what you need. Here’s a list of some other things you’ll want to think about as you look for the counselor best suited to address your situation:
If you’re a believer, you’ll probably want to find a counselor who shares your Christian faith. Look for a counselor who
- integrates biblical and psychological principles,
- filters all treatment through Scripture,
- follows the Holy Spirit’s guidance,
- prays for you and your family.
As you consider counselors, avoid extremes of all kinds. Look for someone whose approach is characterized by a balanced emphasis on mind, body, and spirit. Stay away from the therapist who tends to see everything in terms of a spiritual issue or only a physiology or biochemical imbalance.
Education and Training
Review the list of mental health professionals listed above. Decide which type of practitioner is best qualified to address your child’s issues. Make sure that the individual you select has the appropriate credentials.
Some counselors can be described as generalists—they may have a great deal of experience working with a broad range of common disorders but have little or no competency in your child’s particular area of need. If at all possible, look for a therapist who specializes in the area where your child is having problems. If you can’t find a Christian practitioner who fits the bill, you may have to settle for a nonbeliever. Just be absolutely certain that this person won’t say or do anything to undermine your family’s faith.
Before choosing a counselor, take some time to browse the counselor’s website, gathering basic information about credentials, philosophy of treatment, fees, and office location. During this phase of your search, you may be able to glean some useful data from Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network or from one of the following counseling associations:
- The American Association of Christian Counselors
- Psychology Today
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Psychological Association
- Colleges in your area that offer degrees in psychology or counseling
Once you’ve narrowed your list of potential candidates down to three or four, it’s time to do a phone interview with each of the counselors you’re considering. It would probably be a good idea to ask your child to listen in, especially if he’s an adolescent. That way, he’ll be able to have a voice and participate in the final decision.
Here are some questions to ask during the interview:
- How will you go about developing an assessment and diagnosis of my child? How do you collect information and make decisions?
- How do you develop treatment goals?
- How do you develop a treatment plan?
- What are the laws surrounding confidentiality with a minor? How do you maintain confidentiality and keep me as the parent in the loop at the same time?
- What is your guiding philosophy concerning the use of medications?
Final Thoughts: Relational Therapy
Counseling will succeed or fail based upon the relationship the counselor can establish with your child. If that relationship clicks, you and your child will have taken your first step on the pathway to healing, wholeness, and a new outlook on life.
If it doesn’t, there’s no need to panic—just restart the search process. If you stick with it and make wise choices on the basis of the information we’ve provided, you’ll eventually find a good match.