Where to Seek Mental Health Help and Treatment
By Jay (John) Case, MD, Psychiatrist
Program Director, Virtua Behavioral Health
Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Virtua Memorial Hospital
Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. And, even though mental illness is epidemic in the United States, accessing mental health care can be challenging. This information can help you navigate services and get help.
What is mental illness?
The terms mental health and mental illness cover a wide range of conditions and symptoms—from anxiety and depression, to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and psychosis (a severe disorder marked by a break with reality). It can affect the way you think, feel or interact with others.
Symptoms can vary from mild to extreme—the seriousness often determined by the degree to which they affect your ability to function day-to-day. Mental illness can be chronic (long lasting) or episodic (occasional), and anyone can experience it regardless of age, race, gender, or physical health.
Where should I go for help and treatment?
The type of care you need depends on the type and severity of your condition. If you’re in New Jersey and experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis, go to a psychiatric screening center. Crisis-screening centers are open 24 hours a day and provide guaranteed care that includes assessment and diagnosis, as well as a discussion of whether inpatient care would benefit you. Here are the designated psychiatric screening centers that are in every county in New Jersey.
If you aren’t in crisis, the most common way to access mental health care is through your primary care doctor. Your doctor will guide you to most appropriate care for your needs. Your insurance company may refer you to specific providers or facilities.
Where is mental health treatment provided?
Mental health treatment is provided in a number of settings:
- Inpatient: Inpatient treatment, or hospitalization, provides the most intensive mental health care. Inpatient care is best for people who are in crisis and at risk of hurting themselves or others. Mental health professionals monitor patients for a period (usually a few days to a week) to make sure that their medications are working, to provide or confirm a diagnosis, and to help keep patients safe during a psychiatric episode.
- Partial hospitalization: Partial hospitalization is a step down in intensity from inpatient care. In partial hospitalization, patients participate in a very structured program 5 days a week for 6 hours a day, but spend nights and weekends at home. Partial hospitalization frequently is used as a way to provide a structured and supervised transition from inpatient to outpatient care.
- Intensive outpatient care: Intensive outpatient care involves individual and/or group therapy for 2 to 4 days a week, 4 hours a day, as well as medication management. Intensive outpatient care often is offered at hospitals or outpatient clinics and provides a highly structured form of therapy while still allowing patients to go to school or work.
- Outpatient care: Outpatient care is the least intense form of mental health treatment and may consist of individual or group talk therapy, as well as medication management. Outpatient care is best for people who are managing their mental health well but may need some guidance, support, or medication management from a professional.
What kinds of professionals provide mental health treatment?
When accessing mental health care, you’ll likely encounter one or more of these caring, compassionate professionals:
- Psychiatrists: A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in mental health care. Most psychiatrists focus on diagnosing mental illness and prescribing the appropriate medication to treat it, but a few also provide psychotherapy (psychological treatment).
- Psychologists: A psychologist has a doctorate degree and receives specific training to provide patients with diagnosis, psychological assessment, and a wide variety of psychotherapies.
- Clinical social workers: Typically, a clinical social worker completes a master’s degree in social work and carries the LCSW designation (licensed counselor of social work) if he or she is licensed and credentialed to perform psychotherapy.
- Psychiatric nurse practitioners: A psychiatric nurse practitioner is a registered nurse with specialized training in psychiatry and some forms of psychotherapy. Like psychiatrists, most focus on diagnosing mental illness and prescribing the appropriate medication to treat it, but a few also provide psychotherapy (psychological treatment).
- Counselors/therapists: There are professionals who provide counseling and therapy services and identify themselves by different names. Generally, I would recommend working with someone who has a master’s degree in the field in which they’re trained to do psychotherapy (i.e. psychology or rehabilitation). These individuals also may provide individual or group talk therapy to teach a range of skills for managing anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness. They may or may not be licensed.
- Primary care physicians: Primary care physicians can prescribe psychiatric medications, but don’t specialize in mental health care. They may collaborate with psychiatrists or psychiatric nurse practitioners to provide patients the best treatment options.
- Family nurse practitioners: Family nurse practitioners are able to prescribe psychiatric medications but don’t specialize in mental health care.
Get mental health support in Virtua Primary Care
Virtua Behavioral Health offers mental and behavioral health services in 13 Virtua Primary Care offices throughout South Jersey. To help meet patients' mental and emotional health needs, our primary care physicians refer their patients to licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) who work within the practice. These licensed professionals provide a range of psychotherapy services, including cognitive behavioral therapy and marital counseling, and treat conditions including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse.
Schedule a primary care appointment online now or call 888-847-8823.
Updated January 14, 2022