How to pick a Therapist
Picking a therapist can be a daunting task. First off, where does one go to find a therapist to work with and then once you find a list of therapists how do you choose which one to work with? What do all these acronyms that therapists use even mean, LMHC, LMFT, LCSW, CBT, DBT, EMDR….??!!!
I am here to help out in the confusing process of finding a therapist.
A Google search of ‘How do I find a therapist’ brought up several different options. Some of these were articles written in the same vain as this blog post, on breaking down how to find a therapist, and others were of therapist directories. Among these therapy directories were some of the more notable players (Psychology Today, GoodTherapy, Betterhelp, and Talkspace).
Psychology Today and GoodTherapy are two of the biggest therapy directories out there. I would also like to add a third, smaller, but up and coming therapist directory called Therapy Den. I like this one because their explicit mission is to help fight racism, homophobia, transphobia and all other forms of hate. On all three of these directories, you can search for a therapist by putting in your zip code. This will then take you to a list of therapists in your area that you can then scroll through in order to see their account profiles. The profiles will give you a sense of their practice, and depending on the directory this may include information such as location, education, price per session, specialties, etc. If the therapist has a website, the link should be made available through their profile. If the initial list of therapists in your area is too overwhelming, depending on the directory, you can apply filters to screen for specific insurances taken, issues addressed, gender of the therapist, etc in order to narrow down the list.
Once you have narrowed your list to some potential therapists that meet the initial criteria that you are looking for, take some time to look over their profiles. I want to emphasize that…take some time to look over their profiles. A therapist’s profile can be a way to gain a sense of who they are and how they work with clients. It is important to try and answer the question, ‘Does this person come across as someone that I can work/feel comfortable with?’. The work of therapy can, at times, be scary, exposing, and uncomfortable. This is why you’ll want to utilize all the information the therapist has made available to you so that you can make as informed a decision about them as possible. Does the therapist have a personal website you can look at to get more information about them? Do they have a video where you can get a sense of what they look/sound like? All of this information will help you decide whether this person feels safe, reliable, and competent before making an initial call to them.
I have so far not talked about Talkspace or Betterhelp. These are two companies that are pushing forward a new approach to therapy, making therapy more readily available, through the use of technology. These companies can put you in contact with therapists and make them available to you through talk, text, and video. I can’t speak to the layout of their websites because you have to create a username and password before gaining access to their services and honestly, I just didn’t want yet another username and password that I would have to remember so I have not seen their sites beyond the home page. From how I’ve come to understand these services though, you pay a required amount for the month and this gives you access to your therapist (with the higher tier plans giving you more access to your therapist). These may be good options for those looking for access to their therapist from the convenience of their phone.
What should I look for?
Earlier I talked about how you can narrow your therapist search by using filters within the therapy directories. Some of these filters are simple enough to decide, based on your preferences. Do you prefer a female or male therapist, or does this matter less to you than other criteria? Would you like a therapist that is close to your home, or to your office? Maybe you have a preference for a therapist that speaks a particular language. Maybe you prefer a therapist that is on your insurance plan, or one that does not take insurance.
Wait…why would I want to see someone that doesn’t take my insurance? Wouldn’t that mean it’s more expensive? Yes, it would. But for some, the added cost is worth it because of the other benefits that come with paying out of pocket. For one, some people prefer for their insurance company to NOT know that they are seeing a therapist. For them, this mitigates the risk of any future insurance company not picking them up or not paying for a future treatment due to a “pre-existing condition”. Others prefer to pay out-of-pocket because they fear their job would not hire them or would not allow them to advance in their career if the job knew they were seeing a therapist. It is really unfortunate that there is still such stigma regarding mental health, but there is. And because of this, some people decide that paying for a therapist out-of-pocket is the better option. Still others like the ability to dictate how many sessions they can have with their therapist instead of having that dictated by an insurance company.
So now let’s talk about some of the less intuitive ways in which therapists differentiate themselves between one another. You may have seen certain letters that therapists have after their name (LMHC, LMFT, LCSW). What do these mean? These are acronyms that stand for Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, respectively. These three titles tell you about the emphasis that was given to this therapist while they were in school.
** An important caveat before describing these different academic approaches…these descriptions are to give the most basic sense of what the differences are between these approaches. They most certainly will fall short in their ability to encompass all the teachings and distinctions between these academic tracks. Also, it is important to remember that these are extremely large brushstroke statements and in no way are saying that the skill set of one group cannot be held by another. Much of the particular skills a therapist has come from their own personal experiences, the places they’ve worked, populations they’ve worked with, post-graduate trainings they’ve attended, etc.
A Licensed Mental Health Counselor had an emphasis in school on focusing on the individual client’s inner experience (thoughts and feelings). They will work with a client to better understand themselves and work towards helping the client to meet their goals. A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist had the opportunity to learn about the dynamics that occur between couples and within families. They will be able to work with these groups to seek a more harmonious balance. A Licensed Clinical Social Worker was taught about the importance of looking at the client’s external factors (finances, social support, job, etc.) when considering their current mental health. A LCSW will be able to give insight into how these external factors may be strengthening or hindering the clients sense of wellness.
As far as the other acronyms you may come across in a therapist’s profile, CBT, DBT, etc. I am tempted to tell you to not pay attention to them at all. These acronyms stand for particular modalities (ways in which the therapist sees/understands clients’ issues as well as how to address them) that the therapist uses. Frankly, I see these acronyms as more helpful for other therapists and don’t see how using a bunch of psychological jargon is helpful for potential clients. I would say unless you have had previous experiences with one of these modalities and are looking to continue with that particular modality, than instead feel free to look more at what other criteria may be important to you. I think the more important way to finding the right therapist will be to use your intuition once you make contact with them. I will be speaking on this further a little later.
Ok, I have a short-list, now what?
Once you have a list of several potential therapists you’re interested in based on them meeting the requirements that are important to you, now it’s time to start reaching out to them. Some therapists offer a free consultation, others do not. Because each therapist is running their own private business, it is up to them how they would like to structure their business’ practices. For me, I like to offer a free 30 min consultation. This gives both the client and myself a chance to see if working together may be a good fit. If by the end of the consultation it does not seem like a good fit then they have avoided having to pay for a visit that may not have served them and it gives me a chance to still be helpful by offering a referral or suggestion to where they might look for a better fit. It’s a Win/Win!
During your first several sessions (1-3) you want to be checking-in with yourself to see how you feel about your therapist. Do you still feel comfortable and safe with them? Do you feel heard/understood? Does your therapist seem competent in the area that you wish to address? I put the suggested window of sessions because you may need a couple of sessions to see how you feel about working with your therapist. Depending on how your therapist works, it may take a session or two to gather background information before diving into the details of the particular concern you are coming in with. Listen to your gut/intuition when deciding on whether to stay with your therapist or not. But at the same time be honest with yourself. Are you uncomfortable with your therapist, or is it the fact that you may be finally bringing uncomfortable topics to the foreground and that is what is uncomfortable? Sometimes this can be hard to suss out. All this being said, sometimes you will just know right off the bat that it’s not a good fit and if this is the case, you should listen to that. It is better to spend some extra time in finding the right therapist for you than to work with just anyone.
Working with someone who is not a good fit for you can potentially cause more stress and may prevent you not only from getting the help you need now, but may prevent you from seeking out therapy in the future due to a negative prior experience. But putting the time in to finding someone who is a good match for you can mean building a wonderful and positive relationship that can be available to you, now, and for years to come!