21 Jul How To Be an Informed Mental Health Consumer
Picking the right therapist and absorbing accurate mental health information can be challenging when there seems to be a lot of options and information out there. What things should you pay attention to when choosing a therapist so that you know you are in good hands? How can you tell the difference between solid, well-researched mental health information, and false claims for cures and treatments? Here are a few things to keep in mind…
On what to look out for in a therapist:
Education & training. Does your therapist list their educational background, qualifications, and/or certifications in their bio? For most mental health professions including psychologists, mental health social workers, counsellors, psychotherapists, and sex therapists, some post graduate experience is required. Did your therapist attend an accredited graduate program that specialised in the treatment of mental health/relationship issues?
Licenses & memberships. Does your therapist list their professional license and memberships with accredited professional mental health peak bodies in their bio? In Australia, Psychologists are licensed with the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA) and obtain membership with the Australian Psychological Society (APS) which outlines ethical standards and guidelines for best practice. Accredited Mental Health Social Workers (AMHSWs) are licensed with the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) which also informs ethical standards and best practice guidelines. Counsellors and psychotherapists are licensed through the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) and represented by the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) which informs best practice guidelines and ethical standards for its registrants. Sex therapists (also known as psychosexual therapists) are registered as psychologists, AMHSWs, counsellors, or psychotherapists either with AHPRA, AASW, or ACA, have obtained specialty training, and are accredited through the Society of Australian Sexologists (SAS) which govern best practice and ethical standards.
Specialty training. Did your therapist obtain additional training in the area for which you are seeking treatment? Are they committed to on-going training and upskilling? Couples therapy, family therapy, and sex therapy are considered specialty fields requiring additional training beyond education provided in most accredited training programs. Likewise, training for the diagnosis and treatment of certain mental health issues such as neurodevelopmental disorders (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder), cognitive disorders (e.g., dementia), trauma, addiction, sleep disorders, and psychosis may require additional speciality training than what is typically provided for certain degree pathways and professional licenses.
Experience. How comfortable are you with a relatively new practitioner? There may be pros and cons to seeking mental health treatment from someone more “green.” Pros could be that they are recently trained with often up-to-date knowledge of evidence-based practices and novel therapeutic skills, and have not suffered therapist burn-out or a condition known as compassion fatigue which can negatively impact therapists’ ability to treat effectively. Cons are that they may not have previously encountered issues such as yours or have limited experience in successfully treating a range of mental health issues.
Philosophy. Do you ‘vibe’ with your therapist? Can you get a feel for who they are from either reading about them in their bio or in your first few sessions with them? Do you feel heard and valued? Or do you feel judged and dismissed? Do you get a sense that your values align? Do you connect with your therapist’s theoretical orientation – that is, the types of therapy and practices they regularly draw from in their treatment?
On what to look out for in articles about mental health treatments or “cures”:
Consider the source. Scientific journals, accredited organisations, and experts in the field are your best sources of information. Note the author of the article you’re reading and consider any funding sources or potential biases that the author might have in writing the article.
Look out for references. Pay attention to whether claims that are made include links or references to the science. Does the article you’re reading include supporting information, or are there just broad, sweeping sentences without any evidence to support the claim? Also be sure to pay attention to whether a scientific journal article has been retracted – meaning that the article has been removed either because of an error, fraud, or misconduct in the research.
Know key words/phrases. ‘Evidence-based’ means that a scientific investigation (usually in the form of a treatment study) has shown how/why/for whom a treatment works. A ‘clinical trial’ is a type of treatment study that assesses whether treatments are safe and effective and involves strict adherence to a study protocol. A ‘randomized controlled trial’ (RCT) is a type of clinical trial study (often referred to as the ‘gold-standard’ for treatment studies) in which participants are randomly assigned to either treatment A or treatment B so that researchers can test which treatment is better, ensuring that participants are placed into treatment groups without any bias (i.e., they are randomly assigned). ‘Peer reviewed’ means that a research article (i.e., a treatment study) has been submitted for publication to a journal and undergone a process in which the method, findings, and conclusions have been critiqued by leading scholars in the field. ‘Scientific reviews’ are types of journal articles that review the efficacy of treatment studies. The gold-standard of scientific reviews is called a ‘meta analysis’ or a ‘meta-analytic review’ which involves a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple independent studies of the same topic (i.e., treatment for depression) to determine an overall trend or ‘effect size’ (i.e., how effective a treatment is).
Sample sizes matter. Would you trust a new treatment for depression if it was only tested on one person? What about two or three? The size of a study’s sample (i.e., the number of participants that the study had) can greatly influence the validity and generalizability of a study’s findings1. While there is no broadly accepted minimum number of participants that is required for a study’s findings to be valid, scientists determine sample sizes needed in order to make sure their studies are robust by calculating something called ‘statistical power.’ Generally, a minimum power of 80% is considered acceptable2, which would mean that a study would have an 80% chance of detecting an effect that exists.
Becoming an informed mental health consumer does require some effort and energy on your part, particularly because of the wide range of practitioners and types of information circulating out there. If you can equip yourself with a few of the tools mentioned above to help you spot a good therapist and a good source of information, your mental health and wellbeing might thank you for the extra effort and energy you took in being an informed consumer.
1 Faber, J., & Fonseca, L. M. (2014). How sample size influences research outcomes. Dental Press Journal of Orthodontics, 19(4), 27-29.
2 Ellis, P. D. (2010). The essential guide to effect sizes: Statistical power, meta-analysis, and the interpretation of research results. Cambridge University Press.