Nobody wants to go to a doctor’s office or a mechanic’s garage and hear the phrase, “I’ve never seen this problem before.” Similarly, when you tell your problems to a therapist, you look for understanding, not surprise.
If you’re in the workforce, you probably know that there’s more to experience than just the number of years on the job. This chapter will give you some idea of what to look for in terms of therapist experience.
The simplest way to look at experience is in mathematical terms: how many years has a particular therapist been “on the job?” Even this is a little trickier than it seems at first.
Suppose a therapist tells you they have “ten years of experience in the mental health field.” Was the experience full-time or part-time? Did they deliver therapy for all ten years, or did they work in health care administration for five of those years?
Estimating experience based on age isn’t a safe bet, either, because many people choose counseling as a second career. A 30-year-old therapist may have twice as much experience as her 60-year-old colleague.
Like medical doctors, some therapists pursue a specialty while others remain “general practitioners.” Unlike medical doctors, though, many therapists choose to straddle the line between these two categories, keeping a general practice while at the same time pursuing special training and experience in certain kinds of problems.
Because therapists deal with such a wide variety of issues, it’s important to consider how much experience a therapist has with the problems you’re facing. You may decide that a therapist with three years of experience focusing on your area of concern is a better choice than a therapist with twenty years of general experience.
Just as therapists work with different sorts of problems, they also work with different sorts of people. A person who has spent the last twenty years working primarily with adults, for example, may not be competent to treat children without special training and supervision.
If you’re seeking group therapy, couples therapy, or family therapy, it’s important to know a therapist’s experience level working in those formats.
Licensure laws usually don’t specify who a therapist can and cannot work with, so it’s up to you to ask about experience and training.
Just like in any other field, there are therapists who simply punch the clock. For these people, thirty years of experience is really just one year of experience repeated thirty times.
Other therapists take an active interest in their work, however, and work hard to learn new things. Here are some activities that demonstrate an above-average commitment to professional growth:
- Membership in professional organizations
- Teaching classes or leading workshops
- Writing articles and books
- Conducting research
At the top of an index card or small piece of paper, write Experience. Below that, record your preferences
concerning therapist experience.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Jul 2009