The Power of Referral

Like a bridge spanning an otherwise challenging obstacle, a referral is meant to take its recipient safely and efficiently from point A to point B.  An excellent healthcare referral can be a powerful intervention, but many such referrals are made in haste without much forethought.

It can be especially difficult for mental healthcare consumers to obtain a good referral because of the shame and stigma that still lingers.  They can be afraid to ask for fear of being judged. This is unfortunate, because mental health problems are very common in the United States and nobody should have to feel alone. According to NIMH, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

In addition, many consumers are not aware of the differences in types of mental health providers such as marriage and family therapistspsychiatrists, psychologists, licensed professional counselors and social workers.  They may become overwhelmed, discouraged and give up more quickly when the first referral or two doesn’t pan out.

Providing an Effective Referral
When providing a mental healthcare referral, it first helps to know what the client really wants and needs.  This involves asking good questions and listening closely.  Factors such as type of insurance accepted, location of the practice, years of experience, specialty areas, gender of the provider, and openness to different cultures, ethnicities, and religions may be of varying importance to clients.  Some mental health consumers want a more practical approach to managing symptoms where others want a less structured forum for self-exploration.  Knowing the therapy styles of the providers you refer to can be a big help in making a successful referral.

In order to give a good referral, it helps to know what’s out there.  This requires research and networking.  Reaching out and making contact is an excellent way to learn the specifics about what other providers offer and how they operate.  You may want to ask other providers what their impressions have been of your prospective referral sources.  It is also helpful to ask clients about their experiences with other providers.

Obtaining an Appropriate Referral
It takes skill to obtain a good referral as well.  Formulating a clear and concise summary of your wants and needs is an important first step.  You may want to survey several sources such as other types of healthcare providers, friends and family who have experience with the services you need, and professional organizations such as certifying or licensing bodies.  Internet rating sites may be of some help, but keep in mind that many of them are unmoderated and biased (unhappy or angry customers are much more likely to weigh in than satisfied ones).  Finally, reaching out and making contact with the various referral options may allow you to ask good questions and see if you would be a good match.

Unsolicited Referrals
What do you do when you believe someone may benefit from a mental healthcare referral, but they haven’t asked for one?  This can be a very sensitive situation.  Your best chance of being heard and considered is to first convey your concern and caring for the person.  Then tell them specifically how you think the referral may benefit them.  Self-disclosing your own positive experiences with mental healthcare can be especially helpful when appropriate.  Perhaps you’ve had a friend or relative that found good help in the past.  Conveying a personal experience can be quite convincing, comforting and normalizing to the other person.

Referral Resources
It is good stewardship for busy healthcare providers to take the time to give a referral when someone comes to us for something we can’t provide.  If you’ve ever struggled to find a specialist and been on the receiving end of a great referral, you know the gratitude you feel toward the person who provided it.

The following are some good places to start in your search for a mental health professional:

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