How to Find the “Right” Therapist

Portrait Placeholder No Profile Image By Lisa Westerson
woman talks about how to find the right therapist with another woman, both seated

If you are asking yourself how to choose the right mental health provider for your needs, you have already addressed what may be the most difficult part: realizing you need help. Now that you have made the decision, you may be feeling overwhelmed by what comes next. The idea of meeting someone new and disclosing some of the most uncomfortable and vulnerable parts of your life can be daunting and stress-inducing. You may be wondering how do I find a therapist who is the best fit? Will I connect with them? Will they really listen to me and be able to help?

To make finding the right therapist less intimidating, break down the search process into smaller steps.

Identify Problems and Troubling Thoughts

This is one of the most crucial parts of the therapy process. Before you even contemplate what your therapist will be like, you need to think about why you are reaching out for help in the first place. Think about what you are looking to resolve in therapy. Make a list of thoughts and feelings that have been troubling you to help prepare questions to ask when you speak with a clinic, insurance person, or provider. Are you struggling with family issues, addiction, trauma, or work stress? There are therapists that specialize in each of these areas.

Start Researching Therapists

There are various ways to seek out therapists. You can research online and join online therapy forums where you can ask for advice from people with similar experiences. Friends, family, and coworkers may provide referrals to someone that they have worked with and found success. If cost is most important, it may be best to start with contacting your insurance company so they can point you to places that take your insurance. If location is most important, it may benefit you to call the local mental health clinic in your area or complete an online search using your zip code.

Organize Your Needs in a Wish List

Now that you have a selection of therapists, whittle them down by coming up with a list of must-haves. Start by identifying what is most important to you. Are you most comfortable working with a man, woman, or non-binary person? Would you want to work with someone your age, younger, or older? Does it matter if your therapist has a particular religion or cultural affiliation? Do you want to meet with someone in person or are you comfortable meeting online? Are you willing to drive far away for a therapy session, or do you want to stay close to your home, school, or workplace? This wish list of needs is important to refer to while you find the right therapist.

Different Types of Therapists

Therapist is a broad umbrella term for mental health professionals who are trained—and often licensed—to provide a variety of treatments and rehabilitation for people. Some have specializations in certain types of treatment modalities or approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which focuses on changing inaccurate or negative thinking patterns, so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.

Another common therapy approach is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) which teaches you to better manage your emotions by practicing acceptance strategies and distress tolerance skills while building upon your strengths. Psychodynamic therapy helps clients look into their subconscious conflicts and the impact of past experiences on behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, especially relating to relationships with others. Of course, there are additional treatment approaches, including some specifically aimed at helping clients get through trauma, grief, PTSD, gender issues, and more.

Knowing the key differences between certain mental health professionals will help you find the right therapist that fits your needs.

Counselors View mental health issues through a practical, individualized perspective, focusing on problem-solving skills and understanding specific details that contribute to issues. Sometimes referred to as clinicians, these mental health professionals work in a variety of settings such as schools, drug rehabilitation centers, and mental health clinics.

Social Workers – Meet with clients to listen to their concerns and help them create a plan to cope with problems in their everyday life. Social workers are committed to supporting people from all backgrounds and advocating for social and economic justice for members of diverse communities. Social workers may work in governmental organizations, schools, hospitals, private practices, community centers, and nursing homes.

Psychologists – Have highly specialized training in the diagnosis and psychological treatment of mental, behavioral, and emotional illnesses. Psychologists study the way you think, behave, and relate to other people and your environment. In doing so, they discover negative patterns and assist clients in making desired life changes. They normally work with individuals, couples, or families.

Psychiatrists – Utilize psychotherapy, otherwise known as talk therapy, to identify and control troubling symptoms or behaviors so a person can function better and increase their overall well-being. Psychiatrists understand the complex relationship between the body and mind. They can assess symptoms that clients present from both a mental and physical perspective. These professionals can prescribe medication when needed.

Although credentials may vary, all licensed mental health professionals adhere to a uniform standard of practice and code of ethics in providing service and accountability to clients.

Choose the Right Therapist

Since it may be difficult to decide on one therapist just based on research, set up informational calls with each provider on your shortlist. Prepare a few questions to ask during the informational call. Two questions that may assist in narrowing your choices are asking specifically about how they conduct their treatment and how they create comfort for their clients. Advocating for yourself in the call by having your wish list (as noted above) available will help direct your questions. Lay all your needs and concerns out on the table during these informational calls so you can find the right therapist that fits all your requirements.

Schedule Your First Appointment at a Convenient Time

You have chosen a therapist and are ready to schedule your first appointment. Now what? Therapy is an investment in yourself.  Treat your first appointment with respect and care by leaving enough time in your schedule for travel. Rushing to and from a therapy appointment may increase stress around the experience. First appointments can be anxiety-inducing, so you may want to schedule the appointment at a time of day that is most comfortable for you.

Share Openly in your First Session

The first session is often an overview of therapy and what the provider offers.  It involves assessing and acknowledging needs, and sometimes, developing short-term goals as well. You will have the chance to share who you are and discuss your concerns and mental health symptoms to determine your initial treatment goals. In some cases, providers ask you to complete assessments or questionnaires aimed at focusing your therapy journey and goals. You may also sign forms and review confidentiality policies with the therapist. At the end of the first session, you should have a good idea of the next steps and at least one objective for the second session, even if it is to reflect on what was discussed.

Ask As Many Questions As Needed

Your therapist is offering you a service, so you ultimately control the direction of therapy, and you get what you put into it. If you need to ask 15 questions in a row to clarify something, then ask. Professional providers encourage their clients to ask as many questions as needed to feel comfortable and safe, as well as to find the answers for which they may be searching.

Therapists understand that it has likely been a tough decision to ask for help. While therapy is meant to be a supportive and vulnerable environment, there are times when you may not always feel comfortable in what you are discussing – that’s normal. Be open with your provider and take time to acknowledge all of your emotions. This will ensure that you are both on the same page. After your first session, it can be beneficial to write down your thoughts and reflect on how you felt along with possible follow-up questions for the next session.

Set Aside Time for Self-Care

Throughout this entire process, taking time for self-care is crucial. Self-care is ultimately about treating yourself gently—doing things that can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, which in turn help improve your concentration, energy, and overall well-being. During the process of finding the right therapist, there may be moments where you feel overwhelmed. When this happens, it might be a sign to take a step back and do something that brings you joy. It could be something simple, like drinking tea, taking a walk, or petting an animal. These actions make the whole process feel more manageable and can bring you a few moments of peace each day.

Now that you have completed the process of finding a therapist and went to your first appointment, caring for your mental health doesn’t end here. Therapy is an investment in yourself and your well-being, and the progress that you make in therapy should reflect in your everyday life.

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