Clinical health information Help for mental health problems - who do you call? August 16 2019
Judith Ngai Judith Ngai Health writer

If you’re looking for a little extra help with your mental health, here are some places you can start.

Emotional problems are common and for many 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 a 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 can provide a more holistic approach to your health to help you manage physical and mental health needs. They often work in partnership with mental health professionals and can help co-ordinate the healthcare services you may need. They can also prepare a Mental Health Treatment 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. Because they are medical doctors, they can also review your physical health and medications as well as understand the interaction between your physical health and your 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 as appropriate and as required:

  • a range of psychological approaches, including psychotherapy sessions where the psychiatrist and patient discuss problems in a way that helps the patient understand the cause of their problems find potential solutions  
  • prescription medicines 
  • mental health procedures and other specialised care
  • referrals to additional healthcare services or health professionals.

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 may 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. 

Here's more information about psychiatrists including contact details for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists

How can a psychologist help?    

Psychologists are not medical doctors but do have extensive training in psychology – the understanding of how the brain and mind works. This means that they can help with a range of mental health issues including problems with emotions, thinking and behaviour. However, unlike psychiatrists, psychologists cannot prescribe medicines.  

All psychologists must legally be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia. Many practising psychologists are also members of the Australian Psychological Society.

Psychologists 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 psychotherapies 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. If you are eligible, there may still be a gap fee depending on the fees charged by the psychologist and on the length of the session. Referral from your GP will need to be under a GP Mental Health Treatment Plan or a similar plan to receive the Medicare rebate. 

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

Alternatively, you may be eligible to access free or low-cost psychological services that are run by your local Primary Health Network. Ask your GP if this is an option for you. 

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 that are influenced by your personality and life attitudes.  

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 this is not a requirement to be able to carry out effective counselling. 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.

For more information about finding and seeing an appropriately trained counsellor, talk to your GP or contact either these organisations:

  • Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) at or call 03 9486 3077 
  • Australian Counselling Association (ACA) at or call 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, occupational therapist, social worker or mental health nurse with a Medicare provider number. Referral from your GP will need to be under a GP Mental Health Treatment Plan or a similar plan to receive the Medicare rebate. 

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 mental 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. And get an idea of what their services may cost you.

Online help and support 

There can be so much information available about mental health and wellbeing out there, it is often hard to know where to start and what information to trust. The best place to find accurate and reliable information is by talking to your healthcare team. You can also find reliable health information at your local community health centre, doctor’s clinic or pharmacy. 

When online, look for information and resources which are government-endorsed or websites from peak industry bodies or organisations. If you are unsure about the quality of online information take time to look at who is providing the information, who the information is endorsed by, and if there is any reputable medical research to back up their claims.

Here are some websites to get you started:

Beyond Blue
Beyond Blue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.

This Way Up
This Way Up provides online learning programs, education and research in anxiety, depressive disorders and other mental health issues.

Black Dog Institute
Information on symptoms, treatment and prevention of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other mental health concerns.

Kids Helpline
Kids Helpline is a free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5-25.

Head to Health
If you want to improve your own mental health, or support somebody else with mental health issues, Head to Health is an Australian government website that provides links to trusted online and phone support, resources and treatment options. 

For more information download our depression health guide.

If you need immediate help and support

If you are in Australia, you can ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline (for young people aged 5-25) on 1800 55 1800 for free, private and confidential 24/7 help, support and advice.

These groups can help, particularly if you are feeling suicidal. You are not alone. There is always someone to hear your pain and problems, and to help you keep safe.

If your life is in danger, call emergency services on triple zero (000). 

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Judith Ngai Judith Ngai Health writer Judith is a pharmacist and health content specialist.

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