Most people who seek out mental health services do so because they are looking for help with an immediate need for themselves or a loved one. This urgency, coupled with the vast sea of information on the types of therapies and therapists available, can it hard to find a therapist that is right for you.
Selecting the right therapist can often mean the difference between a successful or frustrating course of treatment. Here we will explore the most important elements in selecting the right therapist for you or your loved one.
Think of it as if shopping for a car
I often use this guideline with prospective clients or when making referrals. You would never buy a car without taking it for a test drive, nor should you do so with a counselor. Just because you have made an initial appointment, you are not committed to any length of treatment with any particular therapist.
The initial visit is one where you will consider issues related to “fit.” A good fit will include: a sense of safety, warmth, connection, and good business practices (returns phone calls in a timely manner, clearly documents procedures, holds high standards of confidentiality, etc.).
Many therapists offer a free phone consultation. You may or may not get a sense of how well you would work together from that conversation. It’s okay to give it one or two sessions to see. The therapeutic relationship is one of the tools that therapists use for affecting change, so it’s important to get it right.
Keep in mind that a presenting issues may “cloud” a good fit
Many people have an immediate sense of connection (or disconnection) with a new therapist. However, if you have a trauma history, this initial impression may not be so clear cut. You may like your therapist but have a nagging suspicion that something is not right. If you find that your therapist stimulates memories or fears regarding your safety, continue to look for someone who feels safe. This is an essential ingredient in successful treatment for trauma survivors.
On the other hand, if some of your presenting issues are related to trust or commitment, a sense of discomfort or distrust with a new therapist may be something you need to work through as the first step toward healing.
Determine the nature of your need
While you may not be an expert in the field of counseling psychology, you are an expert on you. It is important that you identify the most pressing issue you are currently facing and seek out a professional who has expertise in that area. If you are unsure (or feel that you have multiple pressing issues), an experienced counselor with an established generalist practice (treating depression, anxiety, or adjustment issues) will be sufficient.
How to conduct a search
You can do this in several ways. Referrals from friends or family are very reliable but not always available. Clergy at your place of worship may have names of professionals that share your same foundational beliefs. The internet is another great resource but one that can easily become overwhelming.
I often recommend that clients use Psychology Today’s website. They offer a therapist search feature that includes a multi-disciplinary list of treatment providers in your area (sorted using your zip code). Each listing includes the therapist’s level of training (with a pop-up window describing his or her level of training), areas of expertise, populations treated, and a brief “note” from the counselor. Most entries have pictures.
Consider the professional’s credentials
The alphabet soup of letters tacked on after a professional’s name may mean very little to the general population but for those of us who have worked for them, we wear them with pride. However, all professional level counselors are not created equal. I often recommend that potential clients give priority to therapists who are licensed in their state of residence.
Licensure ensures you of several things. First, licensed professionals have to have a minimum number of years of practice (under supervision) and pass a standardized test in their discipline. Also, they must complete a minimum number of hours of training each year in order to maintain their license. Furthermore, licensed counselors often subscribe to a higher standard practice, adhering to the professional and ethical guidelines for their particular discipline. (Check out goodtherapy.org for links to the ethical standards of the various helping professions).
Feel free to ask your prospective therapist for his or her license number and then conduct an internet search using the search terms “license verification” plus the name of your state. This will enable you to find a site where you can verify that the license is in good standing.
Questions to ask at your first meeting
At your first appointment, you will want to know the answers to the following questions – questions any good therapist would be happy to answer.
- What do you do to ensure my confidentiality (this includes interactions with your insurance company)?
- What kind of services can I expect in case of emergency?
- What is your preferred method of contact?
- What is your cancellation policy?
- What is your style of counseling?
- Do you focus on specific goals or are you more client driven? (The former will likely be a more short-term, goal-oriented approach to treatment.)
- Is your treatment usually brief (8-12 sessions) or long-term?
- How will I know when I am “done”?
Finding a good therapist for you or your loved one does not need to be a difficult task. Using these guidelines will help you be in a much better position to find a counselor with whom you feel a sense of connection, security as well as confidence in his or her ability to help you along on your path toward healing.
If you are in crisis and are in need of immediate help, don’t wait. Dial 211 to be connected to a crisis counselor in your state or use one of the resources in the link below: