Choosing a Mental Health Provider

Choosing a mental health provider is a personal decision. Below are some suggested steps for selecting the provider who is best for your child and your family.

Contact your pediatrician (or primary care provider) to review the situation. She or he can help you determine what kind of services might be needed and make referrals to appropriate providers.

Consider which type of treatment setting would best suit your family’s needs. You will likely find a variety of mental health providers working in each type of setting. Below are some of the most common settings:

  • Community Agencies offer a range of mental health services to members of the community. Generally they are not-for-profit and accept insurance. These agencies can be a useful option for children who may need more than one kind of service—e.g. individual therapy, family therapy, and medication.
  • Private Practices are operated by individual providers (e.g. psychologists or social workers) out of their offices or homes. Private practitioners usually do their own billing and determine how much they will charge for their services; many of them accept insurance as well as out-of-pocket payments.
  • Group Practices are private practices operated by groups of providers who share common office space and billing systems.
  • Home-Based Services offer in-home treatment to children and families. These services are geared at helping families solve problems together. Because the sessions take place in the home, many families feel more comfortable and the clinician can get a better understanding of how the family lives.
  • School-Based Services provide in-school treatment to children and adolescents; clinicians from other mental health settings visit the school and meet with students during the school day. This is a helpful option when children are unwilling to go to an outside setting—many are more comfortable being seen at school—or their families are unable to transport them there.
  • Day Treatment Facilities are day programs that serve children and adolescents whose mental health issues interfere with their ability to attend school. The length of attendance is variable but usually lasts at least one week. The goal is to prepare the child for reintegration into school and the community.
  • Psychiatric Hospitals provide short-term inpatient services to children and adolescents who are experiencing mental health crises (e.g. attempting to harm themselves). Patients are generally in a secure, locked facility where their safety can be monitored. Most psychiatric admissions are conducted through the Emergency Room of regular hospitals.

Consider which type of mental health provider would be the best match for your child. Each mental health profession (e.g. social work, psychiatry, psychology) has its own areas of specialization and its own approach toward mental health. Only certain types of providers can prescribe medication or conduct psychological testing. See our list of the types of mental health providers, with descriptions of their roles,for more information.

Decide if these other considerations are important to you:

  • Do you have a preference regarding the gender and/or age of the mental health provider?
  • Are you looking for someone with specific areas of specialization (e.g. eating disorders or substance abuse)?
  • Are you looking for someone who speaks another language besides English?
  • Does the treatment setting need to be close to your home or accessible by public transportation?

Contact your insurance company regarding mental health benefits covered by your plan:

  • Is a formal referral by the primary care physician required for coverage?
  • Do you need to choose a mental health provider who is a member of the insurance plan or can you go “out of network” for services?
  • If you choose to go out of network, can you file a reimbursement claim with the insurance company? What information is needed?
  • What fees will be covered? Within the insurance plan? Out of network? Are there any fees that will not be covered?
  • What is the co-pay for mental health services? Is there a limit on the number of visits allowed? What if my child eventually needs more intensive care?
  • For more information, seeUnderstanding Your Mental Health Insurance, from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Begin searching for a mental health provider who meets the above criteria. There are many ways to go about this search:

  • Ask your pediatrician or another professional whom you trust (e.g. school counselor) to recommend somebody. You may also wish to speak to friends whose children have been seen by mental health providers before.
  • Contact the social service department in your local town or city hall and ask if they have listings of the mental health providers in your community, or call the William James INTERFACE Referral Service help line at 617-332-3666 x 1411 or 1-888-244-6843 x 1411 Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. For more information about the service and terms of confidentiality, please click here.
  • The internet can be a helpful resource. A lot of insurance companies have web sites that list all the mental health providers who accept their insurance. Most national associations have web sites that help you find providers within a certain profession—e.g. the National Association of Social Workers or the American Psychological Association. Finally, there are general web sites that list mental health providers who pay to be included in the listings.

Contact the mental health provider you are considering. You will most likely be asked to explain the concerns that you have about your child and then you will have an opportunity to ask questions of the provider. Below are some suggested questions to pose during your initial conversation.


  • What is your degree and license/certification?
  • What kind of training do you have?
  • How long have you been in practice?
  • Do you have expertise in treating the kind of problem that my child is experiencing?
  • Are there other areas in which you specialize?
  • What is your treatment philosophy?
  • What are your core values as a practitioner?


  • What is your approach toward treatment?
  • What kind of techniques do you incorporate into sessions?
  • Do you give children “homework” to complete between sessions?
  • Do you usually work with the child alone or do you conduct family sessions as well?
  • How much parent involvement is needed?
  • How often do you check in parents about the course of treatment?
  • What is your policy regarding confidentiality?
  • What if my child tells you something that sounds risky or dangerous?
  • How long does a typical session last?
  • How many sessions might be expected overall?
  • In the event of a clinical emergency, would you be available? If not, whom would we call?

Psychotropic Medication and Psychological Testing

  • What is your opinion on the use of medication in treatment?
  • If you did suggest medication for my child, who would prescribe/monitor this?
  • Do you administer psychological testing? If not, would you be able to refer me to the appropriate professionals?

Communication with Other Professionals

  • Will you be in contact with the staff at my child’s school? If so, will you be attending school meetings?
  • What about other professionals my child sees? For example, will you be in contact with his pediatrician? With his probation officer?
  • What is your policy regarding shared information?


  • Do you accept insurance? If so, which plans?
  • If not, how does your payment system work? For example, do you charge a set rate or do you offer sliding scale fees based on income?
  • Do rates differ for individual versus family treatment?
  • Is there a charge for phone consultations while in treatment?
  • What is the payment policy if I have to cancel an appointment?

After this initial conversation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did you feel a sense of rapport with this person?
  • Did you feel safe and at ease?
  • Did you think this person would be a good match for your child?
  • Did you understand how treatment is conducted?
  • Did you understand how payment works?
  • Are there other questions you want to ask before making a decision?

Disclaimer: Material on the William James INTERFACE Referral Service website is intended as general information. It is not a recommendation for treatment, nor should it be considered medical or mental health advice. The William James INTERFACE Referral Service urges families to discuss all information and questions related to medical or mental health care with a health care professional.