Understandably, there is often confusion as to what particular professionals do and how they differ from each other. Following is a brief explanation of each of the professions involved in the mental health field.
GPs are often the first point of contact and the first line of treatment for anxiety and depression. GPs can have a key role in managing mental illnesses. They can diagnose mental disorders, conduct tests to eliminate physical causes for the symptoms, and provide referrals to other services including psychologists or psychiatrists. GPs can provide medical treatment, such as antidepressants, for conditions affecting mental health and prescribe medication for symptoms associated with the problem, e.g. sleeplessness or loss of appetite. GPs can also provide support.
Psychiatrists are specialist medical doctors who diagnose and treat mental disorders. They offer a comprehensive assessment of psychological functioning and focus on interactions between medical conditions and psychosocial disorders. Like GPs, psychiatrists can prescribe, administer and monitor medication. They may also offer psychotherapy. A referral letter from a GP is necessary to claim the Medicare rebate. Clients do not pay out-of-pocket to access psychiatrists through Community Health Centres although they may be required to pay psychiatrists in the private sector who do not bulk bill. Psychiatrists do not advertise their services so it is up to your GP to refer you to someone appropriate.
Psychologists help people with a mental health problem find ways of functioning better. They specialise in the assessment and treatment of psychological disorders, generally using various forms of ‘talking’ therapy. Although psychologists cannot prescribe medication, they can suggest the client sees a GP for a referral to a psychiatrist if they believe they could benefit from medication.
You can claim a Medicare rebate for up to 10 sessions with a psychologist if your GP develops a management plan for your condition and refers you. To find a psychologist in your area either speak to your GP or contact the Australian Psychological Society on 1800 333 497.
Social workers specialise in working with individuals and families where mental health problems exist in connection with social problems such as family distress, unemployment, disability, poverty and trauma. They consider the client’s total situation, including their relationships, financial resources, employment, housing and health. A social worker can offer case management to people with a mental illness to coordinate the services they need. They often work for community services and organisations.
There are also a number of accredited mental health social workers who work in private practice. They are qualified to work with individuals who are experiencing a range of mental health disorders, including depression, mood and personality disorders, trauma and family conflict. You can claim a Medicare rebate for up to 10 sessions with a mental health social worker if your GP develops a management plan for your condition and refers you. To find a social worker in private practice you can look on the website of the Australian Association of Social Workers www.aasw.asn.au/directory-advanced.
Counsellors are professionals who build a therapeutic relationship with clients to assist them to develop understanding about themselves and to make changes in their lives. Counsellors do not give advice but help their clients to find their own solutions using existing personal strengths and resources, as well as helping the client develop new ones. Currently the counselling profession is unregulated, meaning that anyone may advertise themselves as a counsellor, even if they do not have appropriate qualifications. To ensure that you access a qualified counsellor, you should obtain a referral to a registered counsellor through the Australian Counselling Association www.theaca.net.au or PACFA www.pacfa.org.au.