Healthy Tahoe: Mental Health Care Systems

As regularly identified, mental health and access to care are the main concerns impacting the health and well-being of our region. Across the country, healthcare providers, health systems and local agencies are grappling with the same problem.

Locally, we continue to work to meet these needs through strategic partnerships, population health initiatives, educational campaigns and multi-faceted care teams, but the work is ongoing and can always be improved.

Access to mental health care can be overwhelming, especially when you or a loved one has mental health issues. And depending on your insurance, where and how you access mental health care may be different.

Mental health problems are categorized as severe, meaning they significantly interfere with or limit major life activities, or mild to moderate, when a person has a small number of symptoms that have a modest effect on their life daily. Mental health professionals receive specialized education and training to address a variety of mental health issues, including:

Psychiatrist – physicians who diagnose, plan treatment, and dispense psychiatric medication. Although trained in psychotherapy, psychiatrists are generally not the primary therapists for patients. diagnose, provide testing and psychotherapy (often called talk therapy) Patients may or may not also have a psychiatrist. Marriage and Family Therapists – Licensed to diagnose and treat mental health and addiction issues through therapeutic techniques. Treatment often involves family systems. Patients may or may not also have a psychiatrist.

These mental health professionals may see patients within a health care system, group practice, or private practice.

For mild to moderate mental health issues:

If you have private insurance (not Medicare, Medi-Cal, or Medicaid), you should contact your insurer for a list of in-network mental health providers. Plan to contact several therapists to find availability and a good match. Not all patient-therapist relationships click and that’s OK. If you have public insurance like Medicare, Medi-Cal, or Medicaid, you will need to get a referral for mental health services through your primary care provider or clinic, or contact your county mental health services for available resources. If you are “private payment” (out-of-pocket payment in cash, sliding scale fees, HSA, credit card or check), you must contact the therapists directly. Again, plan to contact several therapists before finding a suitable appointment, and visit for more information.

For serious mental health problems:

If you have private insurance (not Medicare, Medi-Cal, or Medicaid), get a referral from your primary care provider to a psychiatrist. If you have public insurance like Medicare, Medi-Cal, or Medicaid, contact your county mental health department. If you or your loved one is having a serious mental health crisis and need help now, go to a nearby emergency department or call 911. The Suicide Lifeline is a free, confidential resource – call/send a Text to 988 anytime.

Just like your physical health, taking care of your mental health is important and can have a significant impact on your overall well-being. Knowing where and who to ask for help will give you a head start towards better health and stability when needed.

Dr. Tracy Protell is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Barton Psychiatry and Mental Health. For more information on taking charge of your mental health, or for a list of local resources and crisis lines, visit

Tracy Protell

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