Tips for Finding a Therapist That’s Right for You
Congratulations on your decision to see a therapist! Whether it’s your first
time in therapy or you’ve been before, finding a therapist can feel like a
daunting task. However, with a little knowledge and an idea of what to look for,
finding the right therapist doesn’t have to be difficult.
What is the most important factor to successful? Many would think the
therapist’s experience, skills or techniques/theories used would be the key to
success. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Research has shown that the
essential aspect determining successful treatment is the therapist-client
relationship (i.e. the rapport/connection you have with your therapist).
Therefore, it’s important to find a therapist whom you trust and feel
comfortable with enough to be open and honest.
Who Can Provide Therapy
Providers of therapy will vary from state to state. Therapists will usually
have a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology or a related field. Therapists
then have to go through a licensure process, which involves getting a certain
number of hours of experience (e.g. 3,000 hours) and taking a licensing exam.
For example, in the state of California, licensed marriage family therapists (MFT)
and licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) usually have a master’s degree,
while licensed psychologist have a doctoral degree. States will have different
titles for these various providers. Psychiatrists, who are medical doctors
(M.D.) specialize in treating mental disorders and may also provide therapy.
Other possible therapists include “interns” who are still in school or who have
graduated and are collecting hours of experience. (Interns are supervised by and
work under a licensed therapist.)
Questions to Think About Before Choosing a Therapist
- Do you have any preference for a female or male therapist?
- Is there a particular style you prefer in a therapist – e.g. active
versus a more passive approach?
- What fee can you reasonably afford?
- How often would you like to see a therapist and what are the best
times/days for you?
- What are the key issues or problems you are dealing with, and what are
your goals for therapy?
Questions to Consider Asking a Prospective Therapist
- How long have you been practicing?
- What is your experience working with _____ issue or population?
- What is your style of working? What is your theoretical orientation
- What is the initial/first session like? What is a typical session like?
- Do you have a sliding scale or reduced fees?
- What, if any, types of insurance do you accept?
- When do you have appointments available?
Checking Licensure Status
Each state has a specific department that regulates individuals who can
provide therapy and handles consumer complaints. For example, in California, the
Board of Psychology regulates psychologists. Many of these state departments
have a website where you can enter a therapist’s license number and look up the
status of their license and any disciplinary actions.
It is important to know that your confidentiality is protected when seeing a
therapist. Therapists must abide by a code of ethics as well as laws and
regulations pertaining to their field which includes maintaining a client’s
confidentiality. In addition to keeping the content of your conversations
confidential, the very fact that you’re in therapy cannot be revealed to anyone
without your permission. Depending on the state you live in, there are few
exceptions to confidentiality (e.g. suspicion of child/elder abuse, intent to
harm someone or yourself). Also, if there is a court order for records, or you
give permission, confidentiality can be broken. Your therapist will most likely
explain confidentiality during your first session. If not, you can ask your
therapist about the exceptions to confidentiality.
Possible Places to Find a Therapist
Private Versus Agency/Non-Profit
You can see a therapist in private practice or one that is employed by a
non-profit or private agency. Often therapists at non-profit agencies offer
lower fees than private therapists. Reduced fees can be offered because many
of these agencies are partially funded by government resources and/or use
interns training to be therapists to deliver services.
Where to Find Possible Therapist Referrals
- Friends, colleagues, family members
- Your current doctor/health care provider
- Local psychological associations (for psychologists, psychiatrists,
social workers, marriage family therapists, mental health counselors)
- Local mental health organizations
- Your health insurance company (or others in the area)
- Yellow pages/phone book – look under categories such as “mental health
services,” “psychotherapy,” “psychologist,” “marriage family therapists,”
“social workers,” “psychiatrists,” “suicide prevention,” “crisis
- Local schools offering graduate programs in psychology or psychiatry
- Local social service and family organizations
- Clergy, religious leaders in the community
- Local hospitals often have a referral list
- Employee Assistance Programs
- Private clinics or agencies
- Therapist referral services (Caveat: usually listings are paid by
therapists. So, a listing is not a recommendation/endorsement) – check
online and in your phone book
Call several therapists and ask them whatever questions you have that
will help you determine whether you want to schedule a first session.
Finances and time permitting, meet with several (at least two) therapists to
see who you would feel most comfortable working with. A personality match is
important because in order to get the most out of therapy, you need to be
open and honest about whatever you want to discuss. Sometimes you will know
from the first session whether you want to continue with a particular
therapist. (Who knows, you may hit it off with the first therapist you see.)
If you call a therapist who doesn’t have any openings or meet your needs,
ask them for any referrals. It’s ok to shop around and not continue with a
therapist if you don’t feel a connection. Therapists are used to and expect
What to Expect at Your First Session
The first session will vary from therapist to therapist. You can ask about
the initial session when you first call a potential therapist. Generally, it’s a
session for the therapist to get to know you and the concerns you want to
address. It’s also a time to see if you’ll be a good match working together.
Usually during the initial session, a therapist will ask more questions than in
other sessions and gather information about your history and issues. You may
also be required to fill out forms and sign a consent form.
Emergencies and Times of Crisis
If you are experiencing an emotional crisis or feeling like you want to
hurt yourself, call a crisis hotline (800-273-8255 or 800-784-2433), call
911 or go to the nearest emergency room (ER). At the ER, you can get help
for a very brief period of time and if needed, you will be provided with
referrals for further help.