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If you are aware you are not functioning as you normally do, you know something is worrying you, you are going around in circles in your thinking and feeling anxious and alone, this is the time to seek professional help.

It takes courage to do this, it can feel like admitting failure or you may feel stupid… This is a normal struggle for many clients. Don’t waste any more time, learn the difference between a psychologist, psychiatrist and counsellor and how to find/choose a therapist.

How to find & choose a therapist

First of all, decide whether you prefer or need a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a counsellor.

What is the difference between a psychologist, psychiatrist and counsellor?


Psychologists are highly trained, accredited and registered health professionals who are trained to assess and counsel emotional and mental health problems. They are trained in listening and other communication skills, practice ethics and confidentiality.

Different psychologists will use different types of therapies, for example:

  • Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), where thoughts and behaviours are challenged and replaced with positive alternatives
  • Interpersonal therapy where the focus is on you and your relationships with other people psychoanalytic therapy – long term therapy focused on unconscious and childhood experiences

There are many more types of therapies and it is important to discuss with the psychologist what you think can work for you.

Some psychologists are registered with Medicare meaning you can get Medicare rebates for up to 10 visits per year (just check out the gap so you know your out of pocket expenses). Your doctor will tell you how you can do this.


Psychiatrists are medically trained doctors first, and later specialise in mental health. They can prescribe medication as well as deliver different types of therapy. To see a Psychiatrist you will need a referral from your doctor. You can get Medicare rebates from your sessions with a Psychiatrist (just check out the gap so you know your out of pocket expenses).


Counsellors are also trained to help you with mental and emotional problems. There are not as many requirements for a counsellor to be registered with a professional body as there are for psychologists and psychiatrists. Some people become counsellors after short courses so make sure you check out the training qualification of the counsellor you would like to see. Call them and make sure they are the right fit for you. There are no Medicare rebates for sessions with counsellors.


Many psychologists are registered with Medicare. You will need a referral from your doctor with a Mental Health Treatment Plan. You give this to the therapist and the receipt enables you to claim. To start with, your doctor will refer you for up to 6 sessions at a time. If you need more, they can refer you for further sessions. Rebates are available for up to 20 sessions per calendar year. Psychologists set their own fees, so Medicare may only cover some of the cost. Ask how much you’ll pay and what you’ll get back when you make your appointment.

You may have private health cover where visits to a psychologist are listed as an extra. Check the rebate for each session and the amount of sessions.

Making an appointment

If you are unsure about how to choose a therapist, ask people you know such as your doctor, trusted friend, local community health centre or a professional body for some names. If you know somebody who has had counselling, ask them. Networking can work well.

Telephone a potential therapist (or if you are nervous ask someone to do this for you) and ask the following:

  • Do you have experience in the area I am concerned about? (stress, depression, relationship difficulties, parenting issues, chronic health problems etc.)
  • What type of therapy do you practise?
  • Are you registered with a professional body? (e.g. The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency for psychologists or The Australian Counselling Association for counsellors)
  • How long have you been practising?
  • How long are the sessions?
  • What is the fee for each session?
  • Are you registered for Medicare rebates?
  • How many sessions might I need?
  • What can I expect in the sessions?
  • Can I bring someone with me (if you want to)?
  • How can I prepare for the first session?

Ask yourself, am I ready to make an appointment now? Did the person listen? Did it feel right?

Make an appointment only if you feel comfortable. If it feels okay, do it!

You may want to phone another professional and compare the responses. You are paying for the service, so you have the right to choose.

The first session

Your therapist will understand that this is a big step for some people and that you may be feeling nervous or overwhelmed during your first visit. Psychologists are highly trained, experienced and bound by a strict code of ethics. You will be working in a relaxed and confidential setting.

The first session can be especially daunting, but as you get familiar with the sessions, it will become easier. Keep in mind, that everything won’t be resolved within the first session, so give yourself and the therapist time.

The first session can stir up a lot of emotions, so be kind to yourself. Plan something nice to look forward to after your session, such as seeing a friend, having a bath, going for a walk or preparing a meal.

Below are some tips to help you prepare for the first session:

  • If you want to make notes, take a pen and paper
  • Be prepared to make payment on the day
  • You don’t have to make another appointment directly after the session – you can call later
  • After the session, sit in a quiet place like the car and ponder on what was shared – Was it helpful? Were you heard? Do you have homework? Will you commit to work with this therapist?
  • Later you can share with a friend or family member if you want – if you don’t want to, it is your right and you may want to tell them ‘I have to think about it’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about it’

If you don’t find sessions helpful after a few visits, talk to your therapist about this. It may be that you look for another therapist – not everyone is a perfect fit.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at March 2014.

Last updated: 02 June 2021 | Last reviewed: 10 March 2014

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