It can be really hard for someone who needs help with their mental health to know where to look. What’s the difference between a professional counselor and a marriage and family therapist? Can a psychologist prescribe medicine? Which professionals can diagnose? How do I know that this therapist is right for me?
So this post is all about what to look for when searching for a good counselor and how to quickly sift through available therapist to find one that’s right for you. (To keep things simple, I’ll use “therapist” and “counselor” interchangeably throughout the post in place of “mental health professional.”)
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND BEFORE YOU SEARCH
It’s all about fit.
I don’t care how much experience a therapist/counselor has, how many degrees they hold, or what their specialty is- if you don’t trust them or feel comfortable with them, they will not be able to help you. When finding a counselor, you may need to shop around for a little while before settling in on a good one.
Ask for recommendations from people you trust.
The good news is that therapy is becoming a lot more common and easier to talk about these days. It’s likely that your best friend, mom, or church leader has a counselor they have tried and can recommend to you. You can also ask your OBGYN or Family Doc for recommendations.
It’s important with this to remember #1, though. Just because your best friend loves her therapist doesn’t mean that you will love him/her, too. It’s OK to find someone who fits better for you.
Think about insurance.
Before you begin looking, it’s important to decide whether or not you’d like to use your insurance. Many insurances cover a variety of mental health treatment, but you’ll need to find out what kinds are covered and which therapists are in-network. Many counselors operate as cash/cards-only because dealing with insurance panels is time-intensive and less profitable, so if you find a therapist just make sure you ask them. It’s also important to remember that just because a therapist is on your insurance doesn’t mean that they will be a good fit for you.
If you find a good therapist and they don’t accept your insurance, ask about being able to use your HSA/FSA cards. Many therapist have their systems set up to accept those. You can also ask about filing out-of-network on your own with your counselor providing you an invoice to do so.
WHEN YOU BEGIN LOOKING FOR A THERAPIST
Google is your friend.
Even if you are using insurance, I recommend googling “therapists/ counselors in my area.” This will bring up any therapist websites and you can sift through those. Most often, the website www.psychologytoday.com will pop up. This is a great resource and helpful for a quick overview of who is available. You can search by type of therapist, specialty, insurance, etc…
You can also use Google Maps and see if your potential counselors has any reviews for their practice.
If the therapist has a website, take a look at it before you call them. Often, a counselor’s website is like the store-front for the their company. It’s a reflection of them, so if you don’t jive with the message they are putting on their site, it’s less likely they’ll be a good fit for you.
Know what you are looking for.
Because counselors *can* treat almost any population, some will make themselves available to anyone and everyone. Steer clear of therapists like this. If they haven’t narrowed down the type of client they enjoy treating, you probably aren’t going to get very far with them. You want to look for a therapist who has a specialty. This is an area of expertise that they have either received more training or that they feel particularly drawn. Try to narrow down the problems you are experiencing to something searchable like “Depression” or “LGBTQ Issues.” Being able to have a clearer idea of what you are looking for will help you quickly narrow the types of therapists that can help you.
This especially applies to age groups like “children” or “adolescents” and family groups like “couples” or “family” therapy. A good child therapist or couples therapist will make it clear that he/she specializes in this area and will likely have received additional training associated with it.
If you are looking for medication or a specific diagnoses or assessment, it’s likely you’ll need to go through insurance and find a practitioner who is suited for that. (Make sure to consult the infograph above on which professionals can diagnose, prescribe medication, and run assessments.)
Be ready with questions.
When you think you’ve found a few therapists who seem like a good fit, give them a call. Even if you’re not a “talking on the phone” person, I believe it’s important to hear what your therapist has to say and get a feel for who they are. This first phone interaction can help with that. When you call, if a receptionist answers the phone, ask for him/her to give your potential therapist your contact information and let him/her know you’d like to chat with the therapist before you schedule. You need to talk to them on the phone and they should be willing to talk to you before you set up an appointment with them.
Once you get them on the phone, here’s a list of some important questions you should ask:
Here is my issue…. Do you think that is something you will be able to help me with?
A confident, knowledgeable therapist will be able to give this answer a strong yes or no and then describe how they will help you. If they skirt around it or don’t sound confident, that would be a red flag for me.
When is your next available appointment?
Some therapists have waiting lists up to 6 weeks long. Don’t be totally deterred by this because “therapist with a waiting list” usually = “good therapist” and often they’ll be able to get you in sooner. But again, know what you need. If you need help sooner, find someone else who can get you in.
Do you take my insurance/ how do you handle payment?
What is your fee and cancellation policy?
Where is your office located? (Sometimes the actual location can be different from the listing.)
What are your normal office hours and how often will we do therapy?
Most counselors start off scheduling clients weekly since that tends to provide the best environment for change, but if you would like to go every other week or monthly let them know ahead of time and see if they are open to that.
Anything else you want to know about them.
It’s not unusual for a potential client to ask if I’m married or if I have kids. They might ask where I went to school or how long I’ve been practicing. Sometimes, they want to just know that I understand their situation. You are welcome to ask your potential therapist these questions and they shouldn’t make you feel weird about it.
Keep in mind, though, that a non-married therapist can be just as helpful in couples counseling as a married one. A child therapist who doesn’t have kids can be just as helpful to your child. Your fit with your therapist depends a lot less on their lifestyle than it does on their ability to treat your issue.
If any of the answers to these questions aren’t a good fit for you, let them know and then ask for referrals to someone who might work better. This is not a personal thing and your therapist should not be offended by it. They should want to fit with their clients as much as their clients want that. They also might know other therapists in the area who specialize in your specific issue.
If there is anything you definitely *don’t* want as part of the therapy process, let your counselor know.
If you are an atheist or you definitely don’t want any religious undertones in therapy, let your counselor know. Even if she is listed as being “Christian” on her profile, this shouldn’t be a problem for her. A good therapist will 100% respect those boundaries for you and not make you feel weird for having them.
If you want to pay in cash so that people close to you don’t know you are coming to counseling, let your counselor know. She should being willing to work with you on that.
If you hate sitting on couches for some reason and would prefer the floor, let your therapist know! For real, though. If there is anything that would help make my client’s experience more comfortable and safe for them, I will try to accommodate that. She should feel like your advocate every step of the way.
WHEN YOU BEGIN THERAPY
Remember who this is about.
This experience is not about your therapist, it’s about you. If you find that you therapist is talking about herself or relating her own problems to yours, that’s a big red flag. You are not paying her to talk about herself. I would go so far as to say that counselors who resort to talking about their own issues in therapy are out of their depth and just grasping at straws for ways to be helpful to you. When I meet with clients, it’s extremely rare for me to use my own experiences and if I do, it’s purposefully and thoughtfully done. Don’t let therapy dissolve into that. If it happens a lot, find someone else.
Give it a 3 session trial period.
Because counseling can be such an emotionally charged, nerve wracking experience, I always ask that my clients give it 3 sessions. If after 3 session they don’t feel like we are a good fit, I’m happy to refer them to someone else. Sometimes it’s immediate, but sometimes it takes up to 3 sessions to feel like you are getting somewhere in therapy. If you come out of the first session feeling like “I’m not sure how that went or if it helped.” That’s totally normal! Sooo many of my clients say that they felt that way when we first met. It’s an unusual experience and your mind is adjusting to it. The first session is also a lot about gathering information and so it can feel like you didn’t really get anywhere. Give it a couple more sessions to see how you feel and then decide.
All of that being said, if after the first session you have any major reservations or have noticed any of the red flags I mentioned, you have no obligation to go back! I have personally gone to a therapist 1 time and not returned because I could tell right away we were not a good fit. If your reservations are more than “I’m not sure if that was helpful or if I liked it.” then don’t feel like you have to keep going. Trust your gut on this one.
How does the office space feel to you? Is it bright and warm? Is it in a dingy, run down office building with clutter all over? You will not be able to feel safe enough to do the emotional work you need to do in an office space that doesn’t feel comfortable to you. A good therapist will make a significant effort to make you comfortable. Many offer tea or coffee before your session and candy/ refreshments during/ after the session. Many have magazines to read while you wait, calming essential oils diffusing, and peaceful music playing. I offer my clients a blanket or pillow to snuggle and I have a little fireplace always going so they can feel at home. Don’t settle for a cluttered, run-down office space! If you don’t feel comfortable when you walk into the office, don’t go back.
I hope this post has been helpful for you! It’s a lot of information to take in and I know it’s not easy, but once you find the therapist that speaks to your heart it’s well worth all of the effort. If you have any other questions about finding a good counselor, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’m always happy to answer them and help you find some good therapists in your area or online.