How To Properly Search for a Therapist

How to find a therapist BELaitna Latinx
Photo courtesy of BELatina.

Considering just how complicated and stressful the world is right now, it should come as no shock that many Americans suffer from mental health issues. We’re all fighting our internal battles, from anxiety to depression, insomnia, substance abuse, and everything in between.

Thankfully, therapy is an effective option to help people cope with those mental health issues, but all therapy is not created equal; it’s essential to find the right therapist to meet your needs.

According to data from Mental Health America, “19.86% of adults are experiencing a mental illness,” which equates to nearly 50 million American adults. The numbers for American youth are staggering as well — more than 15% of youth, ages 12-17, have reported suffering from a major depressive episode in the past year, which is an increase of more than 300,000 annually compared to the previous year’s data, mainly due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

These numbers explain why, in the fall of 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that this country was experiencing a mental health emergency among youth. “This worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed before 2020.” The American Academy of Pediatrics went on to explain that “rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.” 

Hence, the fact that mental health struggles are prevalent and devastating for people of all ages, adults, and kids who are suffering is undeniable. But the good news is that therapy, treatment options, and support systems are available for anyone who needs help. But how do you even begin? How do you take the first step towards finding a therapist? Where do you start your search, and how do you find a psychologist or licensed counselor who is the right match for you?

Contrary to some people’s assumption, not all therapy is created equal, and not all therapists are the same. 

Remember that psychotherapy is a collaborative effort and a trusted relationship between individuals and psychologists. The patient is provided with a safe and supportive environment to talk openly and confidentially about how they feel. 

Both persons involved need to work well together for therapy to work (whatever that means for each individual). And while any help is better than staying silent, it is still imperative to find not just any therapist but also the right therapist for you. According to experts in the field, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. You just need to know where to begin, you need to enter the process with an open mind, and you need to set clear goals for everyone involved.

How to Begin Finding a Therapist

Once you’ve decided you are ready to try therapy and you are in search of a therapist or counselor, you need to know where to look. 

The best place to begin is by a referral. Ask for recommendations from friends, doctors, relatives, and other practitioners. Check with your primary care physician or a trusted friend who has been through their own struggles. 

While word of mouth isn’t everything, it’s often a good place to start. Consult with your local synagogue or church resources or reach out to local university psychology departments or mental health facilities. In addition, you can call your local or state psychological association. 

When in doubt, you can do an online search using the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator service. 

Credentials Matter, So Do Your Research

An online search could yield hundreds of results in your area, so how do you know who is a legitimate option, who might fit your needs, and who to pursue in your search for a therapist? 

A great next place to turn is to their credentials. There are differences between psychologists (Ph.D., PsyD), psychiatrists (MD or DO), social workers (LCSW), Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), and other therapists. 

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental illness. Psychologists have the most extensive graduate training and provide psychological testing for developmental disabilities, dementia, ADD, and other conditions. Licensed Clinical Social Workers have a master’s degree in psychotherapy and expertise in navigating the social services system. You need to know the difference and how it would apply to your treatment, and you need to do your research.

It’s essential to make sure that your therapist or counselor not only has the appropriate credentials but is also experienced in what you need based on your unique struggles. 

“I would recommend that anyone should make sure [their therapist] specializes in what you need. For example, some people may need help due to substance abuse. And although we all take a class about substance use, this does not mean we all have the knowledge or experience to help these individuals,” suggests Danet Martinez, a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern who works for Florida Mental Health Practitioners and the non-profit Regis House.

What Questions Should You Ask a Potential Therapist?

Gather a list of several potential therapists. Don’t stop looking after receiving one name, but gather several names so that you can consult with options and find the right match for you. 

Once you have options, it’s time to start asking them questions. It’s important to consider how comfortable you feel with the therapist you will be working with. Do you feel at ease? Can you envision opening up to them and speaking freely? It’s essential to have a good rapport, and often times you can sense your comfort level early on. 

Some important questions to ask a potential therapist include, but aren’t limited to:

– Are you licensed?

– What is your background? How long have you been practicing?

– Do you have any experience in my types of mental health issues? 

– What are your areas of expertise?

– What techniques do you use to treat patients with similar problems?

– Can you prescribe medication or make referrals for medication?

It’s also important to go into therapy with specific goals in mind to discuss. 

“It’s helpful to go in with a sense of your therapy goals so that you can ask directly whether that provider thinks they can work with you on what’s most important to you,” explains Dr. Joanna B. Wolfson, Ph.D., senior psychologist at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It can also help to ask about their approach (e.g., do they work from a cognitive-behavioral therapy or dynamic therapy model?) It’s helpful to know what to expect and understand what the therapy would look like concretely.” 

Consider the Costs of Therapy

It’s also vital to discuss costs and insurance coverage upfront. While many insurance companies will provide coverage of mental health services and therapy treatments, not all private practices will accept every insurance coverage, so it’s important to ask before you commit. 

Ask if the therapist will bill your insurance company directly or if you will need to pay out of pocket and then be reimbursed based on your insurance plan. Find out how long a typical session is and what the therapist charges for that time. Some therapy sessions are 40 minutes long, some 55 minutes, etc. “If you are uninsured, you can also ask the therapist if they offer a sliding-scale option for you. This means that they may charge you based on your income, but then be prepared to provide proof of income as some therapists may ask for this,” Martinez told BeLatina

Be Open, but Trust Your Instincts

According to Dr. Wolfson, your instincts matter. But it would help if you also gave a therapist a chance. “No matter how you look for or find a therapist (through your insurance, word-of-mouth, a website, etc.), give it 2-3 sessions to get a sense of whether you can imagine working with the therapist, but if it doesn’t feel right after a few sessions, trust your instincts. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll feel most helped if you have a provider who listens and is empathetic to your situation,” Dr. Wolfson told BeLatina.  

Speak Up and Be Honest

You need to go into therapy with an open mind and understand that change does not happen overnight. That said, if you don’t feel like you are getting what you want out of therapy, you need to speak up. 

Danet Martinez explains that one of the biggest mistakes she sees clients make is that they don’t ask questions or are too afraid to speak up. “Never be afraid to ask potential therapists questions. After all, you are hiring us to listen and help you in your most vulnerable state, and it is our job to make you feel safe and heard,” she said. “If you aren’t sure what you’re getting out of the treatment early on, ask the therapist about this, rather than staying silent,” suggests Dr. Wolfson. “Therapy should never be a “grin and bear it” situation. It’s a setting in which direct and honest conversation can help to address and set helpful expectations early.”