Many people start looking for a therapist while they are experiencing significant levels of distress, sadness, troubling symptoms, or other difficulties. While we are in this state, we simply want someone who can help us and hopefully make us feel better. However, just as you would want to meet and discuss things with several professionals for home repairs or try out several models prior to buying a car, it is a good idea to gather information and check out a few psychotherapists to ensure that you are selecting someone with whom you are well matched. Follow the steps below to improve your chances of selecting the right therapist for you.
Consider Your Specific Needs
Many people overlook the need to carefully consider what they are hoping to address in therapy prior to selecting a provider. This is not such a bad thing if you are looking for support with challenges that most therapists commonly treat, such as conflict in a particular relationship or in helping you adjust to specific life-changes such as a divorce or a relocation to a new geographical region. However, if you have special needs or have experienced a severe or long-term stressful situation — such as abuse or neglect as a child, or exposure to traumatic stress — it is important to look for a therapist who has relevant training and professional experience. Similarly, if you have repeatedly sought support and/or tried therapy without success, you may need someone who specializes in a type of therapy that is better matched to your needs.
The saying “like attracts like” applies when it comes to finding a therapist. If you have close friends or coworkers who rave about a particular therapist, a reasonable first step is to ask if they would share the therapist’s contact information. This may be especially useful if the other party has successfully sought support for a difficulty that is similar to yours. If you worry that the other party may feel uncomfortable with your request, voice your concerns, and ask for feedback. Both of you should keep in mind, there is no need to worry about the therapist sharing information about you with the other party since legally (and ethically) therapists cannot share your information. The only exception to this law is if there is risk of serious harm to a client or another party. If you and your friend are comfortable seeing the same provider, consider the therapist as a potential provider for you. It is still a good idea to complete additional research, keeping in mind your goal of selecting a short-list of between perhaps two or three clinicians.
Give Online Directories a Try
There are a growing number of psychotherapist directories available via the internet. A quick Google search for “therapist directories US” produced 669,000 results. These directories can make your search much easier as you can quickly identify local providers, the types of therapy each practices, the insurances accepted and their fee schedules. This also makes it easier to learn if a given therapist has specialized skills and experience that might be particularly helpful to you. It also means that you can undertake research without needing to talk to someone face-to-face about it, which can be a bit daunting.
Regulations regarding who can refer to themselves as mental health providers vary across states and countries, so it is possible to meet with someone who engages in mental health counseling without proper training or certification. You can easily check the credentials or whether a provider is properly trained by visiting the web site of the relevant board of professional licensure. Common boards include those for psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and licensed mental health counselors or professional counselors. These boards lists the names, licensing status and contact information for credentialed providers in each state. Make sure the license is active and that there are no unresolved sanctions against the provider, with an emphasis on sanctions that involve professional misconduct with clients.
Once you have obtained two or three names of potential therapists and checked their credentials, you will want to contact each. Typically, a phone conversation or, if you are more comfortable, an email exchange is acceptable. Be prepared to take notes. It is a good idea to handle logistics prior to any discussion of your specific needs:
- Confirm or reconfirm that the clinician accepts your health insurance plan.
- Verify that the clinician is accepting clients and has availability at times that work with your schedule. This is especially important if for example, you are only able to meet during evenings after you finish work.
- If the clinician is unlicensed, inquire about regular (preferably weekly) supervision from a licensed clinician.
If everything checks out logistically, it would now be appropriate to focus on your particular needs. Be prepared to provide enough information about yourself so that the therapist can make an initial estimation regarding the extent to which he or she may be of assistance. Discussing your personal issues may be a challenge if you are a particularly private person. But keep in mind, the therapist only needs “headlines” and relevant “subheadings”. For example, “I want to work on anxiety that I think is related to stress and conflict in my relationship with my partner. I have been having a hard time sleeping and concentrating over the past month.” This approach allows a private person to share without having to say something like, “I am feeling anxious and obsessing each night because my boyfriend and I are fighting a lot since his ex-girlfriend started texting him a month ago.”
Additionally, if you have a history of exposure to psychological trauma or if you are dealing with overwhelming stress, this headline approach promotes self-care by containing emotions that may be triggered by divulging details. For example, “For six months, I have been experiencing panic attacks. They started after I witnessed a couple having a loud argument while shopping. I think this is related to growing up in home in which this type of conflict occurred on a regular basis.” This approach has a much-reduced chance of triggering than providing details about witnessing the couple in the mall and abusive childhood experiences. If the therapist asks for details that would be overwhelming to discuss in an initial conversation, it is acceptable to let the therapist know that you are concerned about being overwhelmed and would prefer not to discuss details at this time. Any good therapist will respect this limit and may also feel gratitude regarding your limit-setting since our goal is to help you.
Next, it is your turn to interview the therapist. It is useful to have a written list of items in advance so that you are presenting the same questions to each potential therapist and to make sure that you don’t forget any questions. It is acceptable to ask:
- For descriptions of the therapist’s favored techniques and the manner in which they work.
- If the therapist has completed training or continuing education work in your area of concern (completion of formal training and supervision with an experienced licensed individual are common forms of continuing education).
- The extent to which the therapist has worked with people who have difficulties that are similar to your own.
- If the therapist is able to try alternative techniques if the initial intervention fails (important if you have a history of failed attempts at psychotherapy).
Once you have spoken or corresponded with all of your potential therapists, compare your notes. If you are unsure, schedule a meeting with one or two and then compare notes. Prior to selecting a therapist there is one last very important consideration: how well are you matched interpersonally? Simply put, are you comfortable with this particular therapist?
At the end of the day, psychotherapy is an interpersonal — and intensely personal — process and regardless of the clinician’s skills, research shows that an interpersonal connection contributes greatly to successful psychotherapy. So, if you are person who generally connects well with others, but you find that the connection is lacking with a potential therapist, you may want to select someone else. If you have a hard time connecting with others, consider if you think you could become comfortable enough with a particular therapist to share details about your life.
Did the therapist seem interested in you? Did they pay attention to details regarding what you were sharing? Were any questions insightful or aimed at gathering detailed information about you as a person (not just your difficulties)? Did you feel a sense of acceptance, curiosity and attunement? If so, these are good signs that should be considered in addition to the clinician’s formal skills and abilities.
Once you have selected a clinician who seems best equipped in terms of skills and interpersonal connectivity, settle in and prepare for a process of growth that has the potential to exponentially improve you!