Let’s face it: starting therapy can be overwhelming, confusing, and complicated. It’s a process that requires you to be vulnerable with a complete stranger and confront some of your deepest thoughts and beliefs. It’s not easy, and it’s not always enjoyable. Additionally, the task of finding the right therapist adds stress to the equation. When you do a quick Google search for therapists in your area, you’re bombarded with close to a zillion result. How can you find the therapist who is the perfect fit for you? How do you even know what you should look for in a therapist? The truth is, there’s no guarantee that the first therapist you meet will be the best fit, but this guide aims to make the process a little less daunting.
Importance of Mental Health
First and foremost, if you’re reading this guide, you’ve likely recognized and acknowledged the importance of mental health. You might be thinking, “Hmm, I realize that my mental health is struggling a bit right now, and I want to work on feeling better mentally so I can fully engage in my life.” If that’s you, great! You’re in the right place. Mental health is just as crucial as physical health, and the more we normalize seeking help for our mental well-being, the more progress we can make in reducing stigma.
Role of Therapy in Mental Health Treatment
Mental health treatment is a comprehensive process. Individual therapy is often just one piece of the puzzle. Mental health treatment can also involve medication, nutrition therapy, group therapy/support groups, or other wellness endeavors that ultimately benefit your mental health, such as yoga or mindfulness. While individual therapy is only a part of the bigger picture, it plays a crucial role in helping you identify, process, and possibly challenge what’s happening in your mind, enabling you to make changes that enhance your overall quality of life.
Purpose of the Guide
The purpose of this guide is to assist you in finding a therapist who best suits your needs. Therapy is a unique relationship between client and provider, and the strength of this therapeutic bond is just as important as evidence-based interventions. Through this guide, we hope you can narrow down your criteria for a therapist and feel less overwhelmed by the process. However, remember that finding the right therapist sometimes involves trial and error. The most important aspect of therapy is that you feel comfortable and safe with your therapist. So, if the first therapist you try isn’t a great fit, that’s okay. Keep searching and trust that the right therapist is out there for you.
Understanding Your Mental Health Needs
The first step in finding a therapist is to identify and understand your mental health needs. Every therapist has different specialties and areas of expertise, so it’s important to focus your search on therapists who are best suited to your individual needs.
Identifying Symptoms and Triggers
One way to begin understanding your mental health needs is to identify your symptoms and triggers. What do you notice in your body or mind when your mental health is struggling? Do you experience physical symptoms like shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, or headaches? Do you notice mental symptoms such as racing thoughts, rumination, or negative self-talk? Which people, places, or situations tend to exacerbate or trigger these symptoms?
Assessing the Severity of the Condition
Next, we can assess the severity of our mental health needs. This is something that a trained mental health professional can also do during your first few sessions, but it can be helpful to self-assess as well. Do you feel that you would benefit from sessions once a week, twice a week, or more frequently? If you’re struggling significantly, a therapist may recommend a higher level of care to ensure you receive the support you need. You can discuss this with your therapist at the beginning of the first session or during the initial consultation.
Determining the Best Type of Therapy for You
Finally, we can consider the type of therapy that best suits our individual needs. Do you prefer in-person therapy or virtual sessions? Do you have preferences regarding your therapist’s age, gender, or belief systems? Are you seeking a specific type of treatment, such as EMDR or ERP, or do you prefer traditional talk therapy? Asking yourself these questions before searching for a therapist is important.
Finding a Therapist
There are several ways to research therapists. In this guide, we will cover three main approaches: online directories, referrals from friends and family, and referrals from healthcare providers.
1. Online Directories
Online directories are a great starting point for finding a therapist. Websites like Psychology Today, Therapy Den, and Mental Health Match are just a few examples of therapist directories available. Open Path Collective is also a valuable resource for finding therapists who offer reduced-fee services
While these directories are helpful, it can be overwhelming to assess if a therapist is a good match based solely on a picture and brief online profile. For this reason, it can be beneficial to seek referrals from other sources as well.
2. Referrals from Friends and Family
Referrals from friends and family can be very helpful when searching for a therapist. Word of mouth is a powerful tool, and with the decreasing stigma around mental health, more people are open to discussing therapy and recommending their therapists. Confidentiality is a top priority for therapists, so if you start seeing the same therapist as your friend, everything shared in your sessions remains confidential, and your therapist cannot disclose that you are also their client to your friend
3. Referrals from Healthcare Providers
Obtaining referrals from healthcare providers is another beneficial method for finding a therapist. Healthcare providers often have networks and can provide excellent referrals. Your primary care physician, for example, may be able to recommend therapists to you.
Evaluating a Therapist’s Qualifications and Experience
Evaluating a therapist’s qualifications can feel overwhelming, especially when deciphering all those letters. Read on for some guidance on how to navigate this information.
1. Education and Training
Most therapists readily share their education and training on therapist directories or their practice websites. Licensed therapists typically complete graduate-level coursework in disciplines such as psychology, counseling, or social work to practice as therapists.
2. Professional Licenses and Certifications
Therapists can obtain various licenses, and here are some common ones:
PhD: Doctor of Philosophy (in Psychology)
PsyD: Doctor of Psychology
LCSW/LSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker/Licensed Social Worker
LPC/LAC: Licensed Professional Counselor/Licensed Associate Counselor
MFT: Marriage and Family Therapist
If you have questions about a therapist’s licenses or certifications, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s important information, and a therapist will be happy to explain.
3. Areas of Expertise
Considering a therapist’s areas of expertise might be important to you. Depending on your reasons for seeking therapy, you might prefer a therapist who specializes in a specific diagnosis or type of treatment. You can inquire about their areas of expertise during the initial phone call.
Considering Logistical Factors
While not the most exciting part, it’s crucial to consider logistical factors when searching for a therapist. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. Location and Availability
Do you prefer in-person or virtual sessions? Do you need a therapist with evening or weekend availability? If opting for in-person sessions, is there a distance limit for travel? Do you have reliable transportation? For virtual sessions, do you have reliable internet access and privacy? Can you commit to a specific day and time each week?
2. Insurance Coverage and Fees
Do you have mental health benefits through your health insurance? Do you need an in-network provider, or can you afford to pay out-of-pocket for an out-of-network provider? Do you have out-of-network benefits for possible reimbursement? Are you responsible for copays or deductibles?
3. Language and Cultural Preferences
Do you have preferences regarding your therapist’s language or cultural background? What about religion or belief systems?
Making the First Appointment
Okay, so you’ve completed the self-reflection, conducted research, and resolved logistical issues. Now it’s time to make the first appointment! Making that initial appointment can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
First and foremost, most therapists offer a free 15-minute consultation call before scheduling the first appointment. During this call, the therapist will ask about yourself and what you’re seeking, while giving you the opportunity to ask any questions you may have. It’s also a great chance to gauge the therapist’s communication style, energy, and whether you feel comfortable and connected. If you feel it’s a good fit after this call, you can proceed with scheduling your first appointment.
Preparing for the Appointment
When preparing for your appointment, it can be helpful to jot down notes about the points you want to discuss or specific topics you’d like to address. Sometimes, when you arrive at the session, you might forget everything you intended to talk about due to nerves and social anxiety associated with meeting someone new. Having notes written down can be a lifesaver in such situations. Also, come prepared with questions for the therapist regarding their experience, session conduct, and expectations regarding scheduling, follow-ups between appointments, or any other logistical concerns.
What to Expect During the First Session
During the initial therapy session, it’s normal to feel like there’s a lot going on. The therapist will ask questions about various aspects of your life, such as mental health history, relationship dynamics, strengths, future goals, and anything else relevant to your mental health treatment. You might leave the first session feeling like you discussed numerous topics—it’s okay, and subsequent sessions won’t always be like this. The therapist is simply aiming to gather a well-rounded understanding of you and your situation. They might also share some information about themselves or their experience that could be relevant to your treatment.
Questions to Ask the Therapist
What does a typical session look like?
What is your experience in working with clients who are dealing with similar issues as mine?
What can I expect between sessions? Is there any assigned homework?
Am I able to reach out to you or ask questions between sessions? (Therapists may have varying policies regarding this)
How will we track and measure my progress?
Developing a Relationship with the Therapist
Like any human relationship, building a connection with your therapist takes time. It’s unrealistic to expect complete comfort after the first, second, or even third session. It may require some time for both of you to find your rhythm and establish a rapport in therapy. However, the relationship between therapist and client is a crucial factor in the success of therapy. If you don’t feel a strong connection after a few sessions, it’s important to discuss this with your therapist. They can help you navigate these feelings and determine whether to continue working together or explore finding a new therapist. Remember, it’s okay to seek someone who is the best fit for you as not every therapist suits every client.
Establishing Treatment Goals
Setting treatment goals is a vital aspect of therapy. Therapists create treatment plans to guide therapy and ensure progress toward your goals. In the initial session, you will discuss your therapy goals with your therapist. This discussion forms the foundation for your treatment plan and future sessions. It’s important to note that everyone’s goals are unique, and there is no “right” way to approach therapy or set goals. You must choose the goals that are most suitable for you, and your therapist can assist you in that process.
Monitoring Progress and Making Adjustments
As humans, we undergo constant change, which may necessitate adjustments to therapy goals along the way. Perhaps you have achieved some initial goals, and your therapy needs have evolved since you started. It’s possible that you set your goals too high initially and may need to revise them temporarily to progress at a more manageable pace. Or maybe you feel that you’re not making the desired progress toward your goals and require a different approach or intervention from your therapist. These experiences are normal and valid. Communicate any concerns or needs to your therapist openly. They are there to support you and engage in a dialogue about what you require.
The Benefits of Finding the Right Therapist
The process of finding a therapist may appear daunting, but discovering the right therapist for you can yield lifelong benefits. It often serves as the initial step toward enhancing your quality of life and developing a deeper understanding of yourself. The therapeutic relationship itself is incredibly rewarding, providing you with a dedicated space solely for you. Your therapist is there to support, guide, and root for you. The time spent with your therapist is exclusively yours. The unconditional positive regard offered within the therapeutic relationship can be profoundly healing. Additionally, a therapist can provide psychoeducation, coping skills, and invaluable resources that you can carry with you throughout your life, even beyond the duration of therapy.
Encouragement to Seek Therapy
If you are uncertain about therapy or unsure of its potential benefits, consider giving it a try. You don’t have to be fully committed, convinced it will work, or even excited about it. Simply maintain curiosity about the possibility that it could be helpful. Be curious about what you might learn or how you might grow. Explore the experience of developing a therapeutic relationship. Embrace curiosity as your starting point. It’s all you need to begin.
Resources for finding a therapist:
Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists
Therapy Den – https://www.therapyden.com/
Mental Health Match – https://mentalhealthmatch.com/
Open Path Collective (sliding scale/low fee) – https://openpathcollective.org/find-a-clinician
Most Frequent Questions
People Also Ask
How do I find a therapist who is right for me?
What is the difference between a counselor and a therapist?
How do I communicate my therapy needs effectively?
What are the different types of therapy?
Crisis Text Line (24/7 support via text/chat) – Visit https://www.crisistextline.org/ or text “HOME” to 741741.
Suicide Prevention Hotline – Call or text 988.
In an emergency, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room
Gabrielle Ferrara, LCSW is a Licensed Social Worker at Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, specializing in eating disorders, OCD, and life transitions. Gabrielle completed training in Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) for OCD and also incorporates elements of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) into work with clients. In her treatment of eating disorders, Gabrielle uses an intuitive eating approach and is HAES-aligned.
Gabrielle Ferrara, MSW, LSW earned her B.A. from the University of Miami where she majored in Psychology and Criminology and then went on to attend Rutgers University, where she earned her Master of Social Work degree with a clinical focus. During her graduate studies, Gabrielle gained experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in a partial-hospitalization/intensive-outpatient program. Since graduation, Gabrielle has continued to grow her clinical skills through work at an intensive outpatient program and in private practice. Gabrielle has experience providing individual and group therapy, and she typically sees adolescents and adults. Gabrielle is an advocate for all-things mental health and compliments her direct clinical work in different ways, such as her involvement with the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, where she is a support group facilitator. Gabrielle has been featured as a guest on mental health podcasts and is a TEDx speaker. She has also had writing published on The Mighty and Psychology Today. Gabrielle uses a person-centered approach to therapy and believes that empathy, compassion, and humor can go a long way in helping clients heal and grow. She encourages clients to identify their values and use these values as motivation to face their fears head-on, while continuously celebrating all “wins” – big or small.
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