How to Pick the Right Therapist

Choosing a therapist is easily overwhelming and vulnerable. Here are some crucial tips to help bring you clarity and peace of mind as you go therapist shopping.

Youth Insights
 Min read
July 11, 2021

Choosing a therapist is easily overwhelming and vulnerable. A friend once accurately described the therapist-finding process as “a cross between a job interview and online dating.” We all want that just-right blend of professional courtesy and emotional intimacy. And like any profession, there are some great therapists, and some pretty not great ones too. Because so much of the “success” of the therapeutic relationship is about personality fit, a therapist could be great for one person but not for another. Remember: you are the client, and the therapist is there to serve you. It is totally acceptable to interview one or multiple therapists to make sure you’re getting the right fit. Here are some crucial tips to help bring you clarity and peace of mind as you go therapist shopping.

  • Terminology. Not all service providers are the same. Life coaches and counselors are not always licensed, certified mental health professionals and do not receive the same level of training for providing treatment. To make sure you’re limiting your search to licensed mental health professionals, I suggest using Psychology Today. Providers are required to provide proof of credentials and time in the field in order to upload their profiles. For providers who are practicing under another professional’s license until they meet the number of practice hours required for their own, they are required to include their supervisor’s name and license number in their profile as well.
  • Experience and Credentials. Make sure that the therapist is licensed in your state. Although many states are petitioning for a national license, at this time therapists are only legally allowed to provide services to clients who reside in the state for which they are licensed. Also, check to make sure their credentials are relevant to your treatment needs. For example, if you are seeking treatment for substance use, you may prefer to seek out a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LADC) as opposed to another licensure. You can also ask your therapist if they have experience with the topics you are hoping to address in therapy.
  • Time in the field. This might matter to you or it might not. There are just as many mental health professionals who have been in the field for decades who have just as little knowledge and people skills. However, you may prefer someone who has a little more time out of the graduate gate. For example, a fellow colleague who was seeking a couples therapist a while back preferred a professional who had years of experience couple’s counseling, as opposed to a new professional “cutting their teeth on my marriage.” However, there are advantages to working with a professional newer to the field: they are more likely to have more culturally relevant training from school, most likely to have supervision, and have a certain new professional vigor and enthusiasm.
  • Supervision. Here’s a little known fact about mental health professionals: once we are licensed, we have no legal obligation to receive routine supervision by another professional. Our only source of accountability is to the board of which we are licensed. This means that unless a client goes through the hoops of filing a formal complaint with the board, a mental health professional may have no accountability or oversight of their practice. One of the most important questions you can ask a prospective therapist is: How often do you seek supervision and how do you use supervision time to better your practice? If you’re not getting a clear answer or the professional does not seek supervision of some form, red flag.
  • The proof is in the paperwork. Therapists are legally required to provide you with the definitions of unprofessional conduct, your rights as a client, information on how to file a formal complaint if needed, disclosure of privacy practices, and a document outlining informed consent. It is the therapist’s responsibility to make you aware of these things and go over them with you. If they do not, find someone else. You want a therapist who is on top of their paperwork.
  • Sample different therapists. It’s exhausting, I know, but this is super important especially if you have never tried therapy before. Therapists are like snowflakes - there are no two the same! If you have never tried therapy before and you only consult with one therapist, you don’t know what you’re missing. I recommend scheduling an initial consultation with at least three different providers. Usually therapists are willing to do a meet and greet initial session for free for you to scope them out and see if the relationship would be a good fit.
  • Costs and coverages. If you have health insurance, use it for everything it’s worth! Finding a therapist who accepts your type of insurance could save you a large chunk of change. If you do not have insurance, or you have found a therapist who is a great fit but doesn’t take your insurance, ask if they offer a sliding scale, which is a payment proportional to your income. If your therapist is outside of your insurance network, you can also ask your therapist for a superbill, a special type of invoice that you can submit to your insurance company for possible reimbursement.
  • Location and Telehealth. Many therapists are beginning to see clients in person again, but if you prefer meeting with a therapist over telehealth, you are not alone. Telehealth offers convenience and sometimes a wider variety of providers to choose from - you now have options for therapists throughout your entire state rather than within a reasonable commute. I have some clients who alternate between meeting in person and meeting via telehealth, and some clients I have yet to meet in person - it varies! Ask: Do you offer in person and telehealth appointments?
  • Think about your goals ahead of time. What do you want to get out of therapy? Do you prefer informal, fluid talk therapy, or are you looking for specific skill-building guidance and homework? Knowing what you respond well to and what you don’t is super helpful to both you and your therapist. 
  • Email the therapist your questions before you meet for your consultation. This allows you to think carefully about the things that are important for you to say ahead of time so you’re less likely to forget them during the consultation. It also gives the therapist time to think reflectively on your needs and questions. Click here for my initial inquiry template.

Ask the therapist questions about the things that matter to you. Here are some examples:

  • How would you describe your clinical style?
  • If I need medication, do you prescribe or can you recommend someone who does?
  • What do we do if our treatment plan isn’t working?
  • What types of treatments have you found effective in trying to resolve [depression, trauma, anxiety, relationship issues, etc]?
  • What do you consider to be your specialty or area of expertise?
  • What are some things you do to promote your own work life balance and self-care?
  • How have you navigated conflicts with clients in the past if you or the client have to give one another feedback?
  • What are some topics for which you have received training or continuing education?

Afterwards, ask yourself questions about the things that matter to you. Your questions might include:

  • Did the therapist interrupt me, did they listen carefully to what I was saying?
  • How did my body feel during our interaction? 
  • Did the therapist respect my time by being prompt and not rambling?
  • Did the therapist brush off or invalidate my concerns?
  • Did I feel seen, heard, and respected during our interaction?
  • Can I picture myself opening up to this person?
  • [If in person] Did this person honor my personal space?

In the end, the most successful therapeutic relationships tend to be those with the best client - therapist fit. It is okay to be picky and to be clear about your needs and preferences. From a therapist’s perspective, it helps us to assess more quickly if we are going to provide you with what you are looking for, or if we can refer you to someone who may be a better match for you. It is discouraging for both the client and therapist to be weeks or months into therapy and just realizing that your therapeutic relationship isn’t what you need it to be. But the good news is that we greatly lower the chances of that happening by having thorough, thoughtful conversations up front. 

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