How to Find Help

Page Contents:

How can I find a mental health professional?

Many families first discuss their concerns with a family physician, school counselor or clergy member. This person may refer them to a specialist such as a child or adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist. Ask your pediatrician, family physician, school counselor, or clergy member for a referral to a mental health professional. Today, many family practitioners work with a team of providers, including mental health providers, and can refer you to one they know and trust. Talk to close family members and friends for their recommendations, especially if their child or adolescent had a good experience with psychotherapy. Contact a community hospital, state or county medical society, state or county psychological association, or the division of child and adolescent psychiatry or department of psychology in any medical school or university. Local community mental health centers or local Mental Health Associations often keep lists of mental health professionals willing to see new clients or patients. The American Psychological Association has a toll free number that will connect you to the state or local referral service for your area. The number is 1-800-964-2000.The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) maintains an Internet site ( that assists individuals in finding marriage and family therapists in their areas. Only those professionals who have met the requirements of AAMFT Clinical Membership are listed on the locator service.


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How do I choose a therapist or counselor who's right for my family?

There are many types of mental health providers you can choose from. Mental health professionals include psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed counselors, and clinically trained social workers. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications because they are physicians. Many mental health professionals who are not physicians can provide therapy and often work with psychiatrists and family physicians to ensure that their patients can receive needed medications. Psychologists are skilled in evaluation and various forms of intelligence, personality, and psychological testing. Many of them likewise work with psychiatrists, physicians or other helping professionals. What's important is that you select a provider with appropriate training and qualifications. Both psychology and psychiatry have licensure or board certification requirements. Other mental health disciplines require extensive training, supervision, and experience in order to be licensed or certified to provide therapy. None of the mental health professions have a special board certification or licensure specifically in trauma treatment, however.

Talk to close family members and friends for their recommendations.


Once you have the name or names of several mental health professionals in your area, call and interview them over the phone to determine which is the best match for you and your family. There are several questions you'll want to ask, including:

  • Are you licensed? How long have you been practicing?
  • What areas do you specialize in?
  • Do you have experience treating trauma in children?
  • What kind of treatment do you usually use with children and/or adolescents, and why do you believe that this would be effective for my child's situation?
  • How long would you expect my child's treatment to last?
  • What are your fees? Will you accept my insurance or HMO coverage? Will you directly bill my insurance company? Do you have a sliding fee scale or will you set up a payment plan?

Once you've established his or her credentials, it's important that you feel comfortable with the professional, since your child's treatment may involve working together as a team. A good rapport with the professional is critical. Choose a professional with whom you feel comfortable and at ease.


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What can I expect from therapy?

There are many approaches to outpatient psychotherapy and various formats in which it may occur-including individual, group and family therapy. Therapy with your child or adolescent may involve talking or having the child draw or play with toys in order to help the therapist get a better understanding of what is going on. The therapist may ask about the child or adolescent's experience of the traumatic event, as well as how the child is getting along with family, friends, teachers, and students in school. An assessment is made of the child or adolescent's strengths as well as their problems.Taking into account the age and emotional maturity of the adolescent or child, the therapist will engage your child or adolescent in trying to understand their traumatic experience, including the many ways this experience affects their daily lives. A variety of treatment techniques may be used-including, in some cases, medications or interventions with the school and family. The goal is to help the child or adolescent address feelings of helplessness and continued worries over safety and protection, as well as identify constructive thoughts and actions. Trauma can interrupt a child's normal course of development. Along with reducing the impact of posttraumatic stress symptoms, therapy offers the child or adolescent timely support and guidance in resuming interrupted age-appropriate activities.

A variety of treatment techniques may be used.


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What is my role as a parent or caregiver?

Usually the mental health professional begins by carefully listening to your concerns about your child and the family. He or she may also review your child's medical history with you and ask you to obtain additional information from the school or other sources. An individual treatment plan will be drawn up that takes into account your child's problems as well as the strengths that are identified in your child and your family. This treatment plan should be discussed with you and your child along with the advantages and disadvantages of various treatment approaches. Treatment plans for children and adolescents may include therapy sessions alone with the child as well as sessions together with you or other family members. The professional may also want to see parents alone for a few sessions to talk with them and other family members about helpful ways to respond to their child or adolescent.What the therapist shares with you about your child's treatment sessions may depend on the age, maturity and willingness of your child to share information with you. Subjects discussed in therapy, especially with older children and adolescents, are usually not discussed with parents without the child's permission. Your cooperation and participation with your child's therapist is extremely important, however, to the recovery of your child.

Subjects discussed in therapy, especially with older children and adolescents,

are usually not discussed with parents without the child's permission.


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How long does treatment take?

Some children and adolescents may respond to short-term treatment (a few sessions). When the problem has persisted for a long time or is more complicated, however, a longer term of treatment may be needed. Parents and caretakers of younger children should discuss the duration and the goals of treatment with the helping professional after the initial evaluation or assessment has been made, and parents should encourage and assist their children in attending therapy sessions. Adolescents should ask their therapists how long treatment will last and what the goals are for treatment.


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How much does treatment cost?

The fees for treatment are based on both the complexity of the treatment and the amount of time involved. Fees vary depending on where you live and what type of professional your child or adolescent sees. Parents and caretakers should read their insurance policies or call their insurance plan office to find out the details about benefits for their dependents and the extent of mental heath coverage under their plan. Most health plans cover some portion of the costs of evaluations, consultation and treatment services provided by licensed mental health professionals. In addition, government-sponsored health coverage programs (Medicaid, Medicare, CHAMPUS, etc.) provide varying levels of coverage. Find out if there is a group of providers, a "network," that you must choose from or if you can choose any qualified provider. If you can choose any qualified provider, find out what licenses and degrees he or she must have before reimbursement is authorized. If your plan covers only "medically necessary" treatment, find out how that decision is made. Ask what you can do if your coverage is denied or cut short.

If your child has been the victim of a crime,

you may be eligible for crime victim compensation or assistance.

If you do not have insurance or are unable to afford treatment, your community may have publicly funded mental health centers and other mental health programs that calculate the cost of services according to what you can afford to pay. This is called "sliding scale" or "sliding fee" basis of payment. So, even if you have little or no money, services may still be available. Some mental health professionals in private practice may also accept patients on a sliding-fee basis, may work out a payment plan, or even see your child for free. If your child has been the victim of a crime, you may be eligible for crime victim compensation or assistance. There are thousands of programs, within state government agencies and private nonprofit or charitable organizations, that provide two general types of services-compensation and assistance. Crime victim compensation programs reimburse victims (including victims of violent crimes as well as child sexual abuse and neglect) for expenses such as medical costs, mental health counseling, and funeral and burial costs. Crime victim assistance programs provide a range of services, including crisis intervention, counseling, emergency shelter, criminal justice advocacy, and emergency transportation. Information about compensation and assistance programs can be obtained through your local prosecutor's office or law enforcement agency. More information for crime victims and survivors is available through the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).


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When should I get help for myself as a parent?

The impact of traumatic experiences can reverberate throughout the entire family. In such cases, it is important for parents to get help with the difficult task of parenting while they themselves recover and grieve. Family members may be unaware of how others in the family are responding to traumatic reminders. Treatment can help children and their parents better identify trauma or loss reminders in their daily lives so that parents can resume their role nurturing and protecting their children and children can be supported to handle reminders with less distress and disruption.

The impact of traumatic experiences can reverberate throughout the entire family.


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What about the stigma associated with mental health treatment?

Even though children do not bring on traumatic events, parents and families are sometimes concerned about their child being labeled with a mental health problem when they seek professional treatment. We long ago learned that even police officers, emergency workers, firefighters and military personnel who are exposed to traumatic or violent events sometimes need professional assistance to recover and resume their lives. Surely children deserve at least the same level of care. Most problems related to traumatic experiences can be overcome, and children's symptoms can almost always be improved with treatment. Parents and caregivers should feel good about getting help for a child who needs it. Millions of Americans who have received help from treatment for their children would say that it is one of the best investments they've made for themselves and their families.


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