Mental health care: approaches and providers
APPROACHES TO MENTAL HEALTH CARE
Chronic pain, especially severe pain, can have an enormous impact on your emotional health. Research has shown that people with pain are significantly more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Remember that you are not atypical, oversensitive, or weak for experiencing emotional distress because of pain. These are normal, reasonable responses to physical suffering and its associated limitations.
Unfortunately, despite the widely recognized psychosocial effects of pain, caring for mental health often takes a backseat to treating physical symptoms. But stress levels exacerbate chronic pain, and chronic pain exacerbates stress levels. This does not mean the pain is “all in your head.” It simply means that the mind and body are linked. Taking care of your emotional well-being can help improve your pain, or, at the very least, help you cope with your pain.
Here are some of the various types of strategies/approaches to mental health care:
Psychotherapy. General psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can be helpful to coping with pain. There is a wide range of licensed professionals that engage in psychotherapy, including clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers. Be sure to find a licensed practitioner, ideally with experience helping those with chronic health issues. Here are a few examples of more specific types of psychotherapy:
Cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy emphasizes awareness of inaccurate or negative thinking, so you can respond to challenges in a more productive, thoughtful way.
Acceptance and commitment therapy. This approach helps you come to terms with the reality of a challenging situation and refocus your energy on only the things you can proactively control or change.
Psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy. This school of thought explores unconscious feelings/thoughts and the impact of the past on the present. It is one of the more traditional approaches to therapy.
Biofeedback therapy. During biofeedback, you’re connected to sensors that provide information about your body functions, like heart rate or breathing. This feedback helps you identify how subtle changes, such as relaxing muscles or focusing on your breath, can impact those functions. Biofeedback can be offered by a psychotherapist or a physical therapist.
Psychiatric care. Psychiatric care involves the use of medical interventions—most commonly, medications—to treat mental health conditions. Psychiatric care should go hand-in-hand with other mental health strategies.
Peer support. Connecting with others who understand what it’s like to live with pain is hugely helpful. Peer support groups often provide education and coping skills for chronic illness and come in many forms: in person, online, and over the phone.
Meditation & mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness are useful tools for coping with the emotional impact of pain. On a basic level, these techniques can offer a distraction or escape from painful symptoms. But they can also help improve your ability to tolerate pain without anxiety or fear, which can make the pain worse. Examples of meditation and mindfulness include focusing on your breath; visualization or guided imagery; body scanning or progressive relaxation; and practicing gratitude. There are many approaches and philosophies to explore.
Stress reduction techniques. Stress reduction is not limited to meditation and mindfulness. Other techniques include: aromatherapy; art or expressive therapy; journaling; exercise or stretching programs; spirituality; spending time in nature; and more. Find what works for you!
Navigating mental health care
A glimpse into the wide range of approaches to mental health care, and different types of providers who can help.
Types of mental health care providers
Psychologists hold a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD). They can assess mental health, make diagnoses, and offer individual and group therapy. They may be trained to provide specific types of psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy. In most states, psychologists can’t prescribe medication.
Psychiatrists are medically trained and have a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). They can diagnose and treat mental disorders. Unlike psychologists, they can prescribe medications and other clinical therapies. They may have additional specializations, like child psychiatry or substance use disorders.
Clinical social worker
Clinical social workers are trained to evaluate a person’s mental health and use a variety of therapeutic techniques for treatment. (Clinical social workers cannot prescribe medications, however.) A clinical social worker will have completed a master’s degree in social work (MSW). They may also be designated as a LCSW (Licensed Counselor of Social Work). Most programs require these individuals to go through thousands of hours of direct clinical experience.
Licensed family and marriage therapist
These therapists have a master’s degree. They typically have hundreds, or even thousands, of hours of clinical experience. They specialize in common problems that come up in families and married couples.
Licensed professional counselor
The requirements for this designation vary from state to state. Most have master’s degrees and have many hours of clinical experience.
Social workers typically have a bachelor of arts or science in social work. They are often found in inpatient settings, where they provide case management, discharge planning services, and placement services. They may also be involved in public agencies, helping assist with day-to-day challenges in family, social, and work life.
According to the American Art Therapy Association, “art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” These individuals are usually master’s-level professionals.
Wellness/life coaches are increasingly popular. They can help clients talk through decisions and strategies to improve their personal life. These individuals do not have clinical experience or training, though there are certification programs.