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Help for mental health problems – who do you call?

Emotional problems are common and for one in five of us, they can be severe enough to justify seeking professional advice. If you or someone close to you has emotional problems and mental health issues, there are a number of health professionals who can help: your GP, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychotherapist or counsellor. Here’s a guide to the services that different mental health professionals can provide you with.

Although many practitioners work in private practice, others are available in community health centres and in hospitals. You will need a referral from your GP to see some of these mental health professionals but some of them can be seen directly simply by booking an appointment.

How a general practitioner can help

When you have an emotional or mental health problem your GP is a great place to start. GPs often work in partnership with mental health professionals. They can assess your overall health to make sure there are no physical reasons contributing to your emotional problems. They can also prepare a mental health plan, refer you to the right person and prescribe appropriate medicines if required.

How can a psychiatrist help?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have extra qualifications specialising in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and emotional problems. They are trained to recognise and treat emotional problems as well as the effects of physical conditions on the mind.

To practice in Australia, psychiatrists must be registered with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. Treatment by a psychiatrist can include one or a combination of the following:

  • Psychological approaches including psychotherapy – this involves regular sessions where the psychiatrist and patient discuss problems in a way that helps the patient understand the cause of their problems and thus try to find a solution. 
  • Prescription medicines.

You need a referral from a GP to see a psychiatrist.

Can I get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychiatrist?

Treatment by a psychiatrist is covered by Medicare. If you see a psychiatrist as a public patient at a community health centre or a public hospital, the service is likely to be free. If you see a psychiatrist in private practice, Medicare will refund part of the psychiatrist’s fee. Some psychiatrists may bulk bill some patients which means that as a patient, you don’t have to pay a fee.

For more information about psychiatrists including contact details for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrics please see the Further Information section below.

How can a psychologist help?

Psychologists can help with a range of mental health issues including problems with emotions, thinking and behaviour. The kinds of problems psychologists often treat include anxiety, depression, addictive behaviours, childhood behaviour disorders, relationship problems, eating disorders, sleep problems, sexual problems, bereavement, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

All psychologists must legally be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia. Many practising psychologists are also members of the Australian Psychological Society. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists cannot prescribe medicines. They use a range of research-based, effective psychological therapies to address mental health problems.

Psychological therapies are based on the idea that mental health problems arise because of the way people react to, think about and perceive things. Common therapies include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). CBT helps change unhelpful or unhealthy habits of thinking, feeling and behaviour using practical self-help strategies.

IPT looks at how a person’s relationships and interactions with others affect their own thoughts and behaviours.

You don’t need a referral from a GP to see a psychologist privately.

Can I get a Medicare rebate or private health fund rebate for psychologists’ fees?

Some people are eligible for Medicare rebates for treatment by registered psychologists under a government scheme. To be eligible, you must be referred to a psychologist by your GP or psychiatrist; or, for children, by their paediatrician.

To find out if you’re eligible for Medicare rebates under the program, please ask your GP.

Most private health funds cover psychologists’ fees, but the level of cover varies – check with your health fund.

How do I contact a psychologist?

For more information about finding and seeing a psychologist, talk to your GP or contact the Australian Psychological Society at or call 1800 333 497 toll-free.

How can a psychotherapist or counsellor help?

Psychotherapists and counsellors can help with emotional and mental health problems. Although there is an overlap between counselling and psychotherapy, the focus of counselling is more likely to be on specific problems or life difficulties while psychotherapy is concerned with deeper and longer-term issues.

How do I find a qualified psychotherapist or counsellor?

The training background of psychotherapists and counsellors can vary. Some will have a background in psychology, social work or nursing, although it’s not a requirement to be able to carry out effective therapy. But finding an appropriately qualified practitioner is essential because, unlike psychologists and psychiatrists who are required by law to be registered, registration for counsellors and psychotherapists isn’t mandatory.
The training and ethical standards for counsellors and psychotherapists are set by the following professional associations:

  • The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA), an umbrella organisation of professional associations of psychotherapists and counsellors. The PACFA website provides a register of practitioners who meet PACFA’s professional standards or you can call them on 03 9486 3077.
  • The Australian Counselling Association (ACA), the professional association of counsellors. A register of members is available on the ACA website or by phone on 07 3356 4255 or 1300 784 333.  

You don’t need a doctor’s referral to see a psychotherapist or counsellor.

Can I get a Medicare rebate for consultations with a psychotherapist or counsellor?

Psychotherapists’ and counsellors’ services are only covered by Medicare if the practitioner is a psychologist or social worker with a Medicare provider number. The services of other counsellors and psychotherapists may be covered by some private health funds.

What to ask your therapist

Whether you opt to see a psychologist, counsellor or other health professional, it’s important to make sure the style of therapy suits your needs and that you feel comfortable and safe with the mental health professional you’ve chosen.

Be sure to ask what the treatment will involve and make sure you’re comfortable with that. It’s also important to ask about the qualifications of your therapist, just as you would ask about the qualification of a surgeon.

Getting free psychological help online with MoodGYM

If you need help for depression or anxiety, the MoodGYM is an interactive online program that may help.

The program is based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to try to help you understand the relationship between your thoughts and emotions. It uses a variety of methods to help you deal with stress and depression, from information modules and games to relaxation techniques. The program is provided by the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University.

If you are feeling suicidal

If you’re feeling suicidal, please seek immediate help. There a number of options available.

Your GP can provide you with a range of options for treating and managing mental health issues. The emergency department at your local hospital will also be able to help you.

If you are in Australia, you can ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 for specialised 24-hour help, support and advice.

Further Information

The Australian Counselling Association (ACA)

Australian Psychological Society (APS)

The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA)

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP)



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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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