Finding the Right Therapist | Why it Matters

Finding the Right Therapist | Why it Matters

You’ve decided to take the first step and seek therapy. One of the challenges is that unlike finding a restaurant or a pet groomer, for example, your acquaintances typically don’t show up at gatherings and talk about “this great therapist I found.” You might not even know that your friend sees a therapist. Besides, what works for your friend might not work for you. So what’s the first step in finding the right therapist for you?

Doing the Research

If your insurance covers mental health, a good place to start would be your insurance company’s provider list. If not, you can look at sites like Psychology Today or Good Therapy (just some of many!) for a local listing of therapists. Before you call for an appointment, start with some criteria to narrow your search. You might consider if some of these are important to you: 

  • Driving distance to therapist: Once the pandemic is behind us, how far are you willing to commute on a weekly basis?
  • Fee: Most providers list a range for individual, couples and family therapy. Some offer “sliding scale” which means they might adjust their fee depending on your income
  • Gender: Are you more likely to be comfortable with a male- or female-identified or a non-binary therapist?
  • Age of therapist: do you want to talk to an older therapist or someone closer to your age?
  • Race/ethnicity of therapist: Would seeing a person of color, for instance, be important to your healing?
  • Faith-based therapy: Is religious affiliation important to you? 
  • Other special circumstances or life experiences: If you are gifted or if you have a military background, for instance, you might want someone who understands the impact of these experiences on your mental health 

Did you know?

You might notice there are several types of mental health professionals, with credentials such as LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology).

These professionals are all skilled at working with individuals who might have depression or anxiety, or difficult relationships with their families. They are not licensed to prescribe medication, but they can refer you to a psychiatrist if they feel it will help your recovery. Therapists often list areas of expertise, so if you already know that you want help with your marriage, or managing your alcohol use, you can search for specialists in those areas. However, not everyone needs a specialist and when you make the first call, you can ask the therapist about your particular concerns.

After you’ve completed the legwork, you now have a handful of names of people who might be a good fit for you. But for therapy to work, there has to be a certain chemistry. Think about your friendships — if you had listed their traits on paper without having ever met them, would you have picked all of them to be your friends? Probably not. Therapy is similar in some ways. Therapy works best when you and your therapist like each other and it’s a comfortable space for you to talk about things that you’ve perhaps never voiced out loud. Most therapists will offer a short phone call or video session free of charge for both of you to assess if this is going to be the appropriate therapist for you. I encourage you to avail of this! 

Making the Call

Since this is a brief call and not a therapy session, make a list of what you absolutely want to know before you make an appointment. Some things may already be listed on their website — credentials, areas of expertise, office policies about appointments and cancellations, possibly their therapeutic orientation such as CBT, Expressive Art therapy, etc. But the call is also about listening to your gut feeling about whether you are comfortable talking to this therapist. You are looking for genuine warmth and empathy, but also consider your own style:

  • Are you someone who wants a therapist who listens while you get things off your chest and process out loud, or do you like someone more interactive? 
  • Are you someone who likes structured and directive sessions with some answers, or do you want someone who challenges you to think? 
  • Do you thrive on homework?

You will have plenty of time to talk about the extent of the problem once you are in therapy, so use this time to assess if you felt heard and respected, if the therapist seemed knowledgeable, and if you felt you could trust this person.

The First Session

And now you get to test your choice. The first session is about building an alliance between you and your therapist, gathering relevant history and discussing a preliminary plan with goals to move forward. As with the phone call, note whether the therapist is listening and whether you feel heard. If you feel the therapist is dismissive of your symptoms or acting distracted and checking his phone, it may be a red flag that this is not the therapist for you (or anyone!).

Sometimes, the therapist may be perfectly professional, but you may still not feel a connection. Research shows that the therapeutic connection outweighs the style of therapy when it comes to seeing progress in clients. In other words, the best psychoanalyst in the world may still not be the best therapist for you if you cannot connect on a personal level. As therapists, we recognize this and encourage you to either speak up in case there is something the therapist can do differently, or look for another therapist without guilt. 

Finding the right therapist is all about you. It’s about taking care of yourself. If you are unsure after the phone consultation or in the first few sessions, keep looking. Therapy is an investment and you deserve the best outcome!