by: Chelsea M. Hughes, M.S. with Elisabeth Flannagan M.S. Ed., LAC. and Dr. Anna DiNoto Myers
The most common question we receive at Take This and at our appearances at conventions around the world is "How do I find a therapist?" Many of you who have decided that speaking to a therapist or counsellor is the next step in addressing mental health issues don't know where to start, or how to find the therapist that will be right for you.
It can be an intimidating challenge. Effective therapy requires trust in your therapist and a relationship that can be difficult to create with a stranger, especially one whom you may know nothing about.
While we can't tell you who the right therapist may be for you, we can provide you with some tools to help you find the best fit, or at least some things to think about. But the most important thing to keep in mind when looking for a therapist is to try keep an open mind and don't be afraid to let your therapist know if you don;'t think it's going to work out. Often it takes multiple tries to find the perfect fit. Just because a particular therapist might not be for you, doesn't mean there isn't a therapist who can help.
What should I do before I start therapy?
Before you even start your first session, there are a few important things you’ll want to think about.
- Are you in crisis? Therapy can be incredibly helpful for dealing with all kinds of concerns. However, sometimes just making an appointment with a therapist isn’t enough. If you feel that you are currently a danger to yourself or others, or if you have active thoughts or plans to kill yourself or someone else, it’s important that you seek help right away. Call 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255, or your local crisis hotline. You can also text HOPELINE to 741741.
- Try to get idea of what you want out of therapy. It’s okay if you don’t have a perfect answer, but it can be very helpful to your search if you have an idea of why you want to pursue therapy. Do you want to develop better coping skills? Break a bad habit? Work on your social skills? Improve your mood? If you’re having trouble verbalizing it, it can be helpful to think, If I were to wake up tomorrow and things would be better, what would be different? What would that look like?
- Understand your insurance coverage. Insurance can be a tricky topic, so it’s important to understand if therapy is covered on your plan. Here are some key questions to ask:
- Do I have mental health insurance benefits?
- How many sessions per year does my health insurance cover?
- What is the coverage amount per therapy session?
- Is approval required from my primary care physician?
Also, if you’re not the Primary on your insurance, you’ll need the permission of the Primary to utilize it. (This is most likely your parents or spouse.)
Talking with your family about pursuing therapy can be a stressful experience, especially if there’s a stigma of mental health concerns in your family. If that’s the case, try to educate yourself and them on the benefits of therapy, and viewing mental health like any other important aspect of your health. Physicians check your vitals to make sure you’re healthy; personal trainers help you identify routines to keep you fit; therapists do the same, but for your mental well-being!
- Commit to change. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already gotten through the hardest part: you’ve realized and admitted (even if just to yourself) that you want help dealing with things. That’s a huge achievement, and you should be proud of it. But the rest of it - the process of changing - is going to take some work, and it won’t happen overnight. Some days will be harder than others. Sometimes, it gets worse before it gets better. When you feel this way, it’s important to communicate your concerns to your therapist. More importantly, remember to be patient with yourself: practice some self-compassion, and to keep in mind why you wanted therapy in the first place.
So, where do I start looking?
When you’re looking to get names of therapists in your area, there are two approaches you can take.
Get a referral.
Sometimes, the best way to find a good therapist is to ask around. Friends, school counselors, and leaders in your community can be great resources to point you in the direction of a reputable therapist. When asking these people, however, it’s important to ask yourself two questions:
“Do I trust this person to know that I’m seeking help?”
For some, the idea of pursuing therapy feels uncomfortable and private. Therefore, consider whom you are asking for referrals, and how they might treat your private information.
“Is this person’s reference suited to my needs?”
Therapeutic styles and expertise aren’t universal. While most therapists are qualified to handle a variety of concerns, it might be important to you to have someone who specializes in your concerns, age group, or even culture. Consider what you need, and choose your therapist to fit those needs.
If asking around isn’t your thing, or if you’re looking for a more extensive search, internet databases are a great place to start.
Databases like these provide a comprehensive list of therapists in your area. You can search by location, specialty, insurance, and more. Additionally, using databases like Psychology Today can ensure the legitimacy of your therapist: only licensed therapists in good standing with the American Psychological Association are listed.
What should I look for when selecting my therapist?
While there are a lot of factors that determine how “good” a therapist is (see below), there are 4 very important considerations to make:
- Distance and Travel. Most therapists maintain weekly or every-other-week schedules for individual appointments. Therefore, when looking for a therapist, make sure you have consistent access to transportation to their location. If you have to take a train and two unreliable buses to get somewhere, you might want to consider someone more local.
- Insurance and Cost. Many insurance plans cover therapy, and many therapists accept insurance. If your insurance plan covers therapy, make sure your therapist accepts your insurance plan before you schedule your first appointment. If you don’t have insurance and can’t afford the full price of therapy, some therapists offer a “sliding scale,” based on your income. Depending on your concerns, therapy can last anywhere from a few weeks to several years. In either case, make sure your commitment to pursue therapy is supported by your financial situation.
- Legitimacy and Licensure. When we decide to pursue therapy, it’s often at a time in our lives where we feel hopeless, lost, or alone. Unfortunately, there are some people who take advantage of that, making claims and promises for results that just aren’t realistic. When choosing your therapist, make sure they’re licensed professionals, or work under the supervision of a licensed professional. Some red-flags are (1) publicly advertised testimonials and endorsements, which are considered unethical in the field, (2) inability to provide documentation of legitimacy, and (3) excessive pricing. A good therapist will be transparent about issues of licensure, supervision, billing, and confidentiality. If your therapist can’t talk openly about these issues, you might consider finding someone else.
- Goodness of fit. This is probably the most important aspect of all! Having a good relationship with your therapist is the biggest factor in successful therapy. Even though the therapeutic relationship is very different from a typical friendship, there are a lot of similarities that can help you decide how well you fit together!
- You should feel comfortable with your therapist. Comfort is hard to put to words, but it’s usually characterized by trust, feelings of non-judgement, and a willingness to be honest. While you probably won’t divulge your deepest darkest secrets in your first session, you’ll probably get an intuitive feeling of how well you could see yourself opening up to this person. It might take a few tries to find a therapist you’re comfortable with - just like you try out lots of friends before finding a best friend! However, if you notice that you’re constantly feeling uncomfortable with potential therapists, you might consider that feeling comfortable with others is a problem area for you, and could possibly be a focus for your work together.
- You should feel respected by your therapist. Do they give you space to talk? Do they take time to answer your questions?
- You should feel empathy from your therapist. It’s true that many people struggle with similar issues, and it’s true that experience working with those issues can inform therapists for future clients. However, your therapist should be concerned with you and how you are experiencing your issues. You should never feel like “just another client,” or that your therapist’s experience means more than yours.
Take This, Inc seeks to educate, inform, and advocate about about mental health issues in our community. We do not provide mental health services or professional consultations. For information on when to seek dedicated clinical help and how to find it, please visit our “When to Seek Help” page. If you or someone you know is in crisis, in need of immediate intervention, and based in the US, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOPELINE to 741741. Information for other countries/areas can be found here.