As I mentioned when discussing qualified career exploration specialists, I want to emphasize that everything on this page is my professional opinion. Other mental health professionals may agree or disagree with parts of what I’m saying here, which is fine.
Who is “qualified?”
In my opinion, a qualified mental health professional is a professional who has acquired enough high-quality mental health training and experience to effectively assist a wide variety of clients from various demographic/cultural backgrounds with their mental health needs.
There are many professions that train and license competent mental health professionals. I recommend working with a mental health professional who is licensed by their state’s professional board for that occupation. For example, each state’s Boards of Psychology controls licensure for psychologists who wish to provide psychological mental health treatment in their state. To verify that your psychologist is properly licensed by your state, you can check that state’s psychologist license verification website. These websites exist for all mental health professions that license their members, not just psychologists.
Each mental health profession tends to emphasize certain knowledge, skills, and attitudes when training and licensing their professionals. For example, most counseling psychology doctoral programs emphasize strong generalist training in talk therapy that pays particular attention to cultural, emotional, interpersonal, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational concerns (to learn about counseling psychology, visit the Society of Counseling Psychology website). Counseling psychologists and clinical psychologists tend to receive similar training, though the emphasis of this training tends to vary slightly by specialty, with clinical psychology programs tending to emphasize psychopathology training and counseling psychology programs emphasizing multicultural training.
As another example, marriage and family therapists are trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems. Thus, mental health professionals share a lot of the same skills but also tend to have certain strengths and limitations as professionals.
I recommend learning about the different mental health professions that exist and working with a mental health professional from a field that tends to demonstrate strengths in the areas that you need help with. The Mental Health America website has a reasonably-accurate list of types of mental health professionals.
People often ask: how important is to to work with a professional who has a doctoral-level mental health degree (e.g., psychologists) versus just a master’s-level mental health degree? Doctoral-level mental health professionals spend more time learning how to provide mental health treatment, but this does not guarantee that they will be better talk therapists. Interestingly, rigorous research suggests that “number of years of experience providing therapy” is not actually a good predictor of how effective the therapist will be at helping the client get better (source), so don’t place too much importance on how long the professional has been practicing talk therapy. As I discussed in a recent online article, I recommend interviewing potential therapists and trusting your gut when evaluating them. Many therapists offer a free phone consultation that will give you a chance to see if you might be a good “fit” for each other. Many therapists also have websites where they describe how they do their talk therapy. Therapy is a working relationship that requires teamwork; it works best when you can work with a professional whose style fits yours.
How do I figure out if someone is “qualified?”
It is hard to know if someone is qualified until you’ve worked with them for a time. However, there are some indicators that you can look for up front, which will suggest (but can never guarantee) that the person is qualified. The more indicators a given person shows, the more confident you can be that they are qualified.
- State licensure as a mental health professional
- A graduate degree in a recognized mental health profession, earned from a regionally and/or nationally-accredited higher education institution. Some professions also have one or more profession-specific accrediting bodies, in which case a therapist from a profession-accredited program may (or may not) be more likely to have received strong training.
- When you communicate with them, they demonstrate transparency (i.e., openness) and non-defensiveness about their qualifications, training, and experience. This transparency includes honesty regarding the boundaries of their competence (i.e., the things they don’t have expertise in). No one person can know everything there is to know about talk therapy. Anyone who claims to know everything may not have a realistic perception of their own abilities.
- They can clearly articulate the process/protocols/theories/systems/tools/resources they use to facilitate their clients’ career exploration. If they have trouble describing how they help people, this is a sign that they need additional training or experience before they will be ready to provide high-quality assistance.
- They have a good reputation in the community and among their fellow professionals. However, a special note about online reviews is in order. Take online reviews with a grain of salt. Recognize that typically only people who really loved or really hated their experience with a professional are likely to post online reviews of that person. Also, for some types of helping professionals, the ethics code for that profession may severely limit their ability to respond to unfair online reviews due to confidentiality issues that can arise by responding to a client. Thus, online reviews may or may be a reliable indicator of a person’s competence and integrity. They are worth examining, but not basing your whole opinion on.
- They recognize the importance and influence of family, diversity, cultural identity, unconscious bias, privilege, stereotype threat, internalized discrimination, and structural discrimination in life and in therapy. They incorporate these concepts into their work with clients in ways that the empowers clients and respect clients’ preferences.
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