A Guide to Accessing Mental Health Services in Southwest Michigan

Demand for mental health services is surging across the country. A recent survey completed by the American Psychological Association (APA) noted that 68 percent of psychologists have waiting lists and that “many psychologists are working beyond capacity.”

As a practicing mental health professional in Southwest Michigan, I can attest to the truth of those survey results. I’ve never been busier at my practice than I am right now, and I frequently have to turn new clients away because, like the psychologists surveyed by the APA, I am working beyond my capacity. 

And I’m not alone in being overwhelmed. Many therapists have waiting lists and many more are not accepting new clients at this time. As The New York Times reported last year, “since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the United States…the number of people in need of mental health services has surged.”

With demand swelling and therapists all over our area unable to keep up, the time seems right for a guide focused on helping people in Southwest Michigan access the care they need. As a provider of those services who works on both the public and private sides of behavioral health, I hope this article will help people navigate what is sometimes a complex and confusing system.

Behavioral health services include both mental health and substance use disorder care. Help for children with Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) and those with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities (IDD) are also considered part of the behavioral health system. Let’s start with the latter two areas first because, in some ways, accessing care in these areas is more straightforward than the others.

If you are seeking care for a child with SED, or anyone with IDD, the place to start is simple: your local community mental health (CMH). When I started working in mental health back in the late 1990s, finding your local community mental health center was easy. You just looked up the name of the county that you lived in and searched for “community mental health.” It was simple.

But today many community mental health centers have rebranded themselves with new names that can make it confusing for the uninitiated. For example, the community mental health center for Kalamazoo County is called Integrated Services of Kalamazoo. The CMH for Cass County is called Woodlands Behavioral Healthcare Network and the one for Calhoun County is called Summit Pointe, presumably named after a metaphorical mountain range in Battle Creek. St. Joseph County residents are served by the more clearly but loquaciously named Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services of St. Joseph County.

Your local CMH should be your first call if you are seeking help for children with serious mental health or behavioral issues, help for those with developmental disabilities, or crisis services for anyone of any age. Your local CMH is also the place to call if you are without insurance and need any sort of mental health service. They have funding to help people who do not have other ways to pay for mental health care.

But where should you go if you have a substance use problem?

Substance use disorders are very common. A study from 2010 estimated that 6.5 percent of Americans will suffer from an alcohol use problem at some point in their lives, and a whooping 8.9 percent of us will suffer from a problem with illicit drugs. 

Where you go to seek care depends on your insurance coverage and the severity of your problem. Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health provides substance use screening for those without insurance and for those with Medicaid coverage. They offer access to both rehab services and local out-patient treatment. They even have an 800 number you can call to be screened for services over the phone. That number is 1-800-781-0353.

If you have a less severe substance use problem or if you have private health insurance, you can access care from a local substance use professional. The website Psychology Today is a great resource for anyone looking for substance use treatment. Simply enter your zip code into the search box and a list of local therapists will appear on your screen. If you filter those results using the “issues” button at the top of that page, you can see all therapists in your area that provide addiction treatment. If you are seeking this kind of treatment, I recommend that you give priority to therapists who have the “CAADC” credential. The CAADC is a credential granted by the Michigan Certification Board for Addiction Professionals and stands for “Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor.” People with a CAADC have specialized training in addiction that other therapists may not have.

But what if you are seeking treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD or some other mental health problem? Where should you turn for help?

The answer depends on whether you have insurance or not. If you are uninsured or have Medicaid coverage, the best place to start is with your local community mental health center or with Integrated Services of Kalamazoo (ISK). Integrated Services of Kalamazoo is part of a federal program called CCBHC that allows ISK to provide services to people from all over southwest Michigan, even if they are not residents of Kalamazoo County. These services are often free, and they cover a large range of services. ISK and the CCBHC program are a true hidden gem of the area that not enough people know about.

Finally, what if you have private insurance and are seeking out mental health services?

A good place to start for people in this situation is the Psychology Today website. The site allows you to search by location and then filter for the condition that you are seeking treatment for. Unfortunately, the list you will be presented with is usually quite long.

Choosing a therapist from a big list can be tricky and overwhelming. If you are looking for help in selecting the right therapist, I recorded two podcasts that may be of use to you. The first is a guide to understanding the byzantine world of mental health credentials and the second explores specific factors that you should take into consideration when choosing a therapist. Both are free.

What about online therapy? Is that a good option?

Online therapy services like BetterHelp and Talkspace are growing in popularity. For people who don’t want to risk running into their therapist at Meijer, these services offer the opportunity to see a therapist who lives in different city than you do. Online therapy has its place but there are significant downsides to these services. For example, you don’t get to choose your own therapist on these platforms and worse, they can be very expensive. I recently heard an ad for BetterHelp on one of my favorite podcasts that said the services BetterHelp provides are “cheaper than your local shrink.” 

That claim is almost always false.

If you have private insurance, most of the time you can get in-person services cheaper with a local therapist than you can with BetterHelp. If you don’t have insurance or have Medicaid, your local community mental health center can provide you therapy that’s much more affordable than BetterHelp, which costs around $80 a week.  

The last couple of years have been tough on all of us, especially children. Because of this more and more of us are seeking out behavioral healthcare. That’s definitely a good thing. But to get the most out of treatment, we must be savvy consumers to connect to the best care available. Fortunately, Southwest Michigan is filled with high quality providers many of whom can be accessed for a reasonable cost.

You just have to pick up the phone or go to a website to get started. 

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].

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