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HOW TO FIND A THERAPIST

Where to look and what to ask, to find the help you need.

One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone”. Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.

                                             Brené Brown

This week marks the start of Mental Health Month.

This year, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is inviting us to get #IntoMentalHealth.

To get: Inspired. Informed. Involved.

For each of us, this will look a bit different.

Maybe it means educating yourself about mental illness. Or about 3 ways mental illness stigma hurts us all.

Maybe it means pledging to promote mental health in your own circles of influence. And equipping yourself to lend support to those around you when they need it.

For many of us, getting #IntoMentalHealth may mean seeking professional mental health support.

If that’s you, read on for my best tips to help you navigate the process of finding a therapist.

 

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KNOW YOUR OPTIONS

When it comes to finding the support you need, there’s a lot of information to navigate. To help sidestep that feeling of overwhelm, here’s the general lay of the land:

Therapy vs. other approaches

First things first: There is therapy, and then there are non-therapy approaches.

While specific approaches vary widely, therapy generally involves working with a licensed mental health care provider to develop positive thinking and coping skills, and to treat mental health issues, such as mental illness.

Non-therapy options are also varied, and may include one-on-one approaches (e.g., spiritual or energy healing, coaching), educational tools (e.g., mental health apps you can access from your mobile device), etc.

Although this post is focused on finding a therapist, I recommend that you thoroughly research any option you are considering. You may wish to adapt the list of questions below as needed.

Therapy vs. medication management

Therapy consists of direct communication with a therapist, for the purpose of addressing the issues you are experiencing. It typically takes place in increments of at least 45 minutes, and is provided by either a Masters- or doctoral-level therapist (or by a therapist-in-training being supervised by a licensed therapist).

Medication management consists of direct communication with a medical provider, for the purpose of monitoring any medication you are taking for the issues you are experiencing. It typically takes place in increments of at least 10 minutes, and is provided by either a psychiatrist, a prescribing physician, or a medical provider in training being supervised by a licensed medical provider.

TIP: Some (but not all) psychiatrists also provide therapy, in addition to medication management.

Format

Therapy may be provided in a variety of formats. While most providers practice therapy in person, some providers offer services remotely (e.g., via platforms like Breakthrough) within a specific geographical region.

TIP: If you are considering remote therapy, ensure that it is provided through a secured platform, rather than through mainstream videoconferencing tools (e.g., Skype), which are not secure.

In addition, therapy may be provided in individual, couples, family, or other group formats. Each format has its own benefits and limitations, and any combination of formats may be appropriate for you.


WHERE TO LOOK

Finding a therapist (the right therapist for you) is more complicated than finding some other types of service providers.

One reason for this is that therapists are trained to protect the privacy and confidentiality of clients. (That’s why you won’t typically find extensive reviews of therapists on platforms like Yelp.) If clients wish to provide a written review, some therapists will invite them to contribute to a compilation of testimonials, to be stored securely in the office. Or some therapists may publish the testimonial anonymously on their website.

Ethically, therapists must educate clients about protecting their own confidentiality, including refraining from posting identifying information about themselves online.

So, where can you look when finding a therapist?

  • you can search online directories (e.g., Find a Therapist)
  • you can check local listings on professional organization sites
  • you can check local listings/ads in community publications
  • you can contact your insurance provider and request a list of providers in your network
  • if you attend a college or university, you can contact its student clinic or health center
  • if you live near a large university, you can find out if they operate a clinic in your community
  • if you’re employed, you can ask about your company’s employee assistance program (EAP)
  • if you know of a loved one or trusted coworker who has been in therapy, you can ask for their recommendation(s)
  • if you have a good relationship with your medical provider, you can ask for a list of referrals
  • if you have a good relationship with your faith community, you can request a list of recommendations or directory of community providers


QUESTIONS TO ASK: THE BASICS

Start with these questions when finding a therapist. Much of the following information can be found on a provider’s website or professional directory listing. Use your own judgment as to which information you’d like to verify and focus on in your initial consultation with a prospective provider.

1. Are you licensed?

Mental health care providers are legally required to practice under their own valid, current license (or, in the case of a provider in training, under the license of their clinical supervisor).

TIP: Any provider should be able to provide you with their license number (if you don’t see it on their website), which can be verified through the relevant licensing board (e.g., the board of psychology) in your state.

2. Under which degree are you licensed?

Mental health care providers are legally allowed to practice under a wide range of degrees, state by state. In addition to understanding the differences between these degrees ahead of time, it can be helpful to ask a provider to articulate in their own words the specific degree under which they practice, and how this informs their work.

TIP: It is common for a provider to have degrees in multiple fields/disciplines (e.g., a BA in Sociology and an MA in Social Work). Feel free to ask about each degree, and to clarify how each relates to the care they provide.

3. What specialized training/experience do you have?  

Although most care providers will be trained to work with a variety of mental health issues, certain issues (e.g., disordered eating, trauma, substance use) will require additional, specialized training. This may include in-depth experience with specific symptoms and processes, treatment interventions, and coordination with other care providers (e.g., medical providers, nutrition providers, etc.).

In addition, it may be helpful to ask about a provider’s experience working with specific identity and cultural characteristics, unique challenges, or complex dynamics, beyond whichever mental health issue is concerning you. Get as specific as you need to in order to evaluate their experience (e.g., experience working with divorced/blended families; experience working with folks who identify as multiracial; experience working with same-sex couples navigating adoption).

TIP: While the decision is ultimately up to you, a good mental health care provider will help you assemble the information you need to determine if they possess the necessary training/experience to work with you or if a referral to another provider is needed.

4. What will my financial investment be?

Although some information about finances may be available on a provider’s website or directory listing, it is always appropriate to ask upfront any questions that will help you determine if you will be able to afford their services.

Specific points to address may include:

  • What are your fees for each type of service? Providers typically offer a range of services, each with its own fee (e.g., the fee for an initial evaluation may be higher than for subsequent individual therapy sessions; the fee for psychological testing may be higher than for therapy; the fee for group therapy may be lower than for individual therapy; etc.)
  • Are your services covered by my insurance company? [TIP: Have insurance card and any other relevant information handy when you ask. You should also contact your insurance provider to verify which types of services are covered.]
  • Do you provide documentation so I can seek reimbursement through my insurance company? Even if a provider is not on your (or any) insurance panel, they will often agree to provide paperwork so you can seek reimbursement on your own.
  • Do you offer sliding scale fees? How is eligibility determined?
  • How is billing handled? In some cases, full payment may be due in advance of a session; in others, a copay or full fee will be due at the time of service; or billed at regular intervals via invoice.

5. What will my time investment be?

I’ve included this here because 1) it’s a natural question to have when finding a therapist, and 2) in certain cases it can be helpful in determining the financial investment. However, with the exception of specific types of approaches (e.g., brief, solution-focused therapy) and services (e.g., a structured, time-limited program), it is likely a provider will tell you that “it depends.”

TIP: While this can be frustrating to hear, try to remember that, when it comes to your mental health, the value and impact of therapy is best evaluated by your personal progress, not by a predetermined timetable.  A good provider will openly discuss this with you if you ask.

6. What format(s) will therapy take?

Although it may not be possible to predict right at the start which specific services will be the best fit, it can be helpful to get a sense of the different services a provider offers.

Common options include: individual therapy, couples’ therapy, family therapy, group therapy (in some cases, participation in a group may be contingent upon concurrent individual therapy), hybrid forms of therapy (e.g., combined yoga + individual therapy), and more.

TIP: Remember that many providers offer a free in-person or phone consultation before beginning therapy. This can be an excellent opportunity to get a feel for the provider in person, and seek clarification on any lingering questions.

7. Is the office accessible?

Ask any questions you may have about accessibility, as appropriate to your needs.
For example:

  • Is the building ADA compliant? Is it outfitted with ramp(s), railings, designated parking spaces, accessible restrooms, etc.?
  • Is seating sized appropriately to accommodate clients of all body sizes? 
  • Is the building accessible via public transportation? Or are transportation services, taxi/Lyft vouchers, etc. available? Is free, onsite parking available?
  • Are translation services available? If a translator (trained specifically in translating within the context of therapy) is not available in-house, can the provider help you locate outside translation services?

 

QUESTIONS TO ASK: GOOD TO KNOW

The following questions go beyond the basics of finding a therapist, and may help spark your own questions. Based on your own needs and goals, as well as the provider’s own style and personality, you may choose to touch on any of these briefly or let them guide a lengthier discussion. Again, use your own judgment as to which information you’d like to focus on.

1. With whom do you enjoy working most?

Different from the concept of specialty area, this question addresses the qualities and characteristics of a provider’s “dream client”.

Most providers enjoy working with a variety of people, but usually there are themes or commonalities to the moments where they feel they’re working within their “sweet spot”.

We don’t ask professionals about this enough, in my opinion. So ask away! They’ll probably be delighted to tell you.

2. What drew you to this profession? What keeps you doing this work?

These questions invite a provider to share their background and articulate their values/motivations in their own words (especially helpful in cases when biographical info on a provider’s website or directory listing is sparse or formally written).

TIP: Some providers have their own personal experiences of mental illness, which may have contributed to their decision to work professionally in this area. Depending on a provider’s style and approach to therapy, they may feel comfortable discussing this with you. Although the focus of therapy should always be on you and your mental health, providers vary with regard to how much they incorporate self-disclosure into therapy. It can be useful to ask about this upfront.

3. What is most challenging about your work? 

Mental health care providers (along with many others in the helping professions) are consistently included on lists ranking highest risk of emotional burnout. Given the demanding nature of mental health care, this isn’t surprising.

What may surprise you, though, is that not all providers experience the same aspects of their work as challenging. So, ask them what is challenging, and why.

TIP: Bonus points if you follow up with this next question…

4. How do you manage these challenges?

This question can yield a goldmine of valuable insights.

First, it reveals more about a provider’s personality, which can help you get to know them.

Second, it gives them an opportunity to communicate their own perspective on self-care, healthy boundaries, and more.

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Third, it can provide a preview of the sorts of strategies, techniques, and practices a provider may eventually ask you to incorporate in between sessions.

TIP: Ask about that last point directly: Are the provider’s own self-care practices aligned with the practices you’ll be invited to incorporate? Why or why not? This may take a provider by surprise, but the resulting conversation can be incredibly revealing, connecting, and fruitful.


 

I know that the process of identifying, researching, and interviewing potential mental health care providers can be a daunting one.

Finding a therapist (the right therapist for you) is not easy.

But it’s an important process, because your life + your mental health are precious gifts.

So, take the time to be thoughtful and thorough.

Enlist the help of a loved one if you need it.

Download this free checklist to guide your questions:

And remember that the very process of finding a therapist + asking these questions can be empowering, even therapeutic.

Happy Mental Health Month.  And cheers to getting #IntoMentalHealth!

 


if you have experience finding a therapist, what questions would you add to this list?

if you provide mental health care, what questions would you add?

share in the comments below!


HI!  I’M MICHAELA. 

I help women love + care for their bodies, through simple daily practices that anyone can learn. After spending over a decade studying, researching, and teaching body image + mental health principles, I started Wild & Precious to empower women to make the most of their lives by making real and lasting peace with themselves. I share practical guidance so you and your family can free up time + energy for the people + things you’re most passionate about… and actually have fun along the way.

12 Comments
  1. Jos says:

    Very informative post! Thanks for all of the great points!

    1. Michaela @ Wild & Precious says:

      Thanks, Jos! I’m glad you find it helpful.

  2. Malou says:

    This is such a great post, and so important. Thank you for highlighting and explaining something that so many people are too embarrassed or ashamed to ask about. I am sure that this will help a lot of people!

    1. Michaela @ Wild & Precious says:

      I hope it will, Malou. Thanks very much for reading!

  3. Larissa says:

    I intern at a counseling clinic, and these are great questions. When I was taking my clinical psychology class in college, we actually covered a lot of these questions, so great list! It’s important to feel comfortable with your {potential} therapist.

    1. Michaela @ Wild & Precious says:

      Wonderful! I’m glad to hear it. Thanks for reading, Larissa!

  4. nicole says:

    This was very informative and held alot of useful information, I am sure it will help alot of people! Mental health awareness is so important, thank you for sharing such an abundance of knowledge.

    -Nicole (wanderlustbrunette.com)

    1. Michaela @ Wild & Precious says:

      You’re very welcome, Nicole. Thank you for reading!

  5. Bianca Karina says:

    Mental health is so important and can be traced to how we see ourselves.

    1. Michaela @ Wild & Precious says:

      Yes, I agree! Thanks for reading, Bianca.

  6. Navi says:

    This was a well written, easy to follow, informative, and SUPPORTIVE article! I know it will help a lot of people navigate through the whirlwind of mental health.

    -Navi (denthusiast.com)

    1. Michaela @ Wild & Precious says:

      I’m so glad to hear this, Navi. Thank you for reading!

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