There are many reasons people may need to enlist a therapist’s services. But whatever the motivation, when it comes to finding a therapist to suit your purposes, it helps to have some insight into how to shop for a therapist.
With all the therapists today, it is customary to wonder if it is okay to “therapist shop.” Knowing how to strike a balance between finding someone you’re happy with and not someone who does not push you to do better can also be confusing.
The Importance of Finding the Right Therapist
Finding a therapist involves doing research, sometimes much research. Although it may feel like too much work, the time spent finding a therapist—the right therapist for you—will ultimately pay off. After all, this will be a relationship where you tell the therapist your deepest fears, baring your soul to discuss things you haven’t told anyone else.
It is essential that there is an excellent cultural fit and that the therapist’s communication style meshes with your preferred communication manner. Is it realistic to think that the first person you check out when finding a therapist will be a perfect match? Not surprisingly, many people report they interviewed or checked out several professionals before finding a therapist that best meets their needs—and with whom they felt comfortable.
If this means taking a little more time than anticipated, think about the process this way. Therapy is a valuable way to make desired behavioral changes, deal with complex and complicated underlying issues, and make the necessary adjustments. When shopping for a treat deal in clothing, cars, homes, vacation destinations, jewelry, shoes, hairstylist, or anything of value, most people take the time to shop around. So, yes, it is perfectly fine to shop around for therapists.
When finding a therapist, it is even more important to do a thorough search, gather the most qualified potential candidates, and then do a deeper dive into the therapist’s credentials, specialties, communication style, insurance they accept, and more.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Therapist
When choosing a therapist, it is helpful to start by listing some of the areas commonly recommended by the experts, like credentials, specialties, and personality. Here are things to consider when finding a therapist.
One of the crucial factors to consider in finding a therapist is what type of licensing and credentials they hold. There are many kinds of mental health professionals in the mental health field. The distinguishing element among therapists is their specific credentials. To achieve licensing and credentials, a therapist must complete several years of training within a particular area, so they’re qualified to treat people with mental health issues.
Credentials help assure potential clients that the therapist is competent, understands mental health concerns, and is committed to not harming their clients. Mental health professionals include psychiatrists (MD), psychologists-doctorate level (Ph.D., PsyD, EdD, plus Dr. before their name), psychologists-master’s level (MA, MS, LGPC, LCPC), social workers (MSW, LGSW, LCSW, LMSW, LCSE-C, LISW, LSW), marriage and family therapists (MA, MFT, LMFT, LCMFT), and pastoral counselors (MA, CCPT, CpastC, NCPC, NCCA). Note that an L before the credential means the therapist has completed licensing requirements.
Only some mental health professionals can prescribe medication, while others can provide counseling.
Although therapists see clients for many reasons, most therapists are specialists in a particular area. Their specialties are listed along with their credentials so that people searching for someone with expertise in that area can readily find them.
Some specialties focus on treating anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, substance use disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Other therapists also specialize in treating clients with specific challenges, while others are known to work with a particular demographic or age group.
There is also great variety in the treatment approaches therapists use, and therapists tailor the type of therapy according to the needs of each client. Therapy types include:
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
- Exposure therapy, including EMDR therapy
- Individual therapy
Several factors to consider include gender preference for a therapist, their age, whether the therapist has a specialty you need, and background (for potential cultural fit). What do you most want in terms of qualities in the therapist? Consider appointment availability, ability to call in an emergency, location, and easy demeanor.
What do you not want in your therapist? Think about gruffness, impatience, dismissiveness, and rigid adherence to only one treatment approach.
How to Search for a Therapist
There are several ways to search for a therapist. These include doing online research, searching directories for therapists, counselors, and psychologists, getting referrals from doctors, and recommendations from friends and family members.
For example, Mental Health America can provide referrals, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers care for eligible veterans. Medicare has a list of participating doctors. Check your company employee assistance program (EAP) for a provider referral.
Finding a therapist is more than doing research. Once you gather the information on credentials, specialties, and insurance, the choices should narrow to a manageable few. How do you pick a therapist from this select group?
If someone suffers from depression, finding a therapist who specializes in treating depressive disorders is paramount. An estimated 21 million adults in America had one or more depressive episodes in the past year in 2020.
What to Ask Before Choosing a Therapist
The first contact may be a phone conversation with the therapist or their office. Questions to ask before choosing a therapist to make an appointment for consultation include:
- Do you accept my insurance? Can you work directly with my insurance plan?
- What are your fees? Do I have to pay a co-payment?
- What treatment plans do you use? Will you share my treatment plan with me?
- I’m curious about how therapy sessions work. How long do they last? What happens during therapy?
- How many sessions do you anticipate I’ll need?
Initial Consultation with a Therapist
The first meeting with the therapist is crucial. During this initial consultation, ask all the questions you have on your list and ones that arise as you talk with the therapist.
Questions to ask a therapist during the initial consultation include:
What is your approach to helping people with my issues (like anxiety and depression)?
What experience do you have treating people with my concerns?
Tell me how your credentials are appropriate for my therapy.
Can you coordinate care with my other medical providers, doctors, and therapists?
During this first meeting, the therapist will ask questions to get to know you, learn a little about your life, what you believe the problem/issue is, your occupation, where and with whom you live, and even ask about your friends and family. Why? The therapist uses this information when assessing your situation and developing a treatment plan.
Follow-up Steps After Your First Session
After the first therapy session, determine whether you and the therapist have developed any rapport. Is this someone who is a good fit and with whom you feel comfortable?
Deciding if the Therapist is a Good Fit
A good therapist is warm and kind no matter what happens during the session. Whether you burst into tears or sob uncontrollably, laugh in nervousness, blurt out angry words, or remain stoic and silent, the best therapist listens, consoles if it is appropriate, shows empathy and compassion, and behaves in a controlled, professional manner that puts you at ease and gains your trust.
A good therapist should not listen to your tale of woe and start advising you on what to do. A good therapist does not judge you for anything you reveal or how you look, act, or speak. The qualities of a good therapist include helping you identify problems like negative thought patterns and self-destructive behavior and decide to make necessary changes.
What Should You Not Look For in a Therapist?
Finding a therapist is different from looking for a friend. A good therapist is someone other than your friend, so you should not seek a friend-type professional. Friendly, yes, but friend, no.
Other red flags that signal this is not the therapist for you include:
- Not being fully attentive during the session
- No feedback
- Impatience with your questions
- Speaking in confusing technical jargon
- Telling you what to do or not do
- Relating personal experiences excessively, talking about themselves a lot
- Being overly friendly, treating you like a friend, not a client
- Not a cultural fit
If everything seems right after the first session, the appropriate next step is to schedule future sessions. Experts say it generally takes a few sessions for someone to feel they are progressing in therapy. Expect to go for close to a month in treatment. At this time, you should be able to determine whether you want to continue seeing this therapist.
How do you feel about this therapist? If you are becoming more resilient and increasing your sense of self-worth because of therapy, this is a sign that your goal of finding a therapist—and the right therapist—is working. Consider, though, that while therapy aims to set you free with confidence and competence, treatment takes time. Depending on the goals, issues that must be addressed, types of therapeutic approaches the therapist recommends, and other concerns, therapy may last four months to a year.