How to Find the Right Therapist for You: Part Four

Here we are with the fourth and final installment in this series on how to find a good psychotherapist. In the posts leading up to this one I’ve addressed the stigmas that keep people from seeking out therapythe various kinds of therapy that exist, and the differences between practitioners. Now, with all of that information in mind, how can you go about finding a good referral, and making sure that the therapist you’ve found is the right one for you?

Let’s start with how to get some good leads.

One of the best ways to get a referral is by word of mouth. If you have a friend who has a therapist that he or she likes and can refer you to, fantastic! There’s no better way to begin than by going to a clinician whose work has been verified by someone you know and trust. It can sometimes be more complicated when the referral is coming from a family member or a partner, because it can challenge your therapist’s ability to be neutral if you’re both talking about each other in session. However, a good friend or acquaintance is a different story, so you may want to begin by asking around to see if you know someone who’s working with a therapist whom he or she likes. Similarly, if you know a clinician personally, it might not be appropriate for you to work with that individual yourself, but he or she can probably refer you to a trusted colleague.

If you don’t have access to that kind of direct referral, a great resource is the therapist directory at Psychology Today. You can look by zip code and/or area of expertise, and you’ll have access to the therapist’s theoretical orientation, gender, and various other search criteria that may be important for you. I personally know of no other resource that’s quite so comprehensive (and I promise that I’m not being paid for that ringing endorsement).

Alternatively, if you have insurance that covers mental healthcare, you can always check your insurance panels to find a therapist in your area. You can also try doing a web search using a specialty as a keyword. However, I will caution you that there’s no way to account for quality when you use these kinds of search methods, so you’re really going to have to use your gut to determine whether a therapist you find this way is a good, quality referral (more on that in a hot minute).

One thing to keep in mind if you live in an area where you don’t have many (or any) options for therapists is that the miracle of technology has opened up some options in this regard. Some therapists today (like me) provide therapy via Skype, making it possible to bring services to you. This is also helpful if you’re disabled and have limited mobility. In my opinion it’s always best to see a therapist in person if you can, but given that it isn’t always possible, Skype is great to keep in mind for circumstances where access to clinicians is limited.

Now that we’ve covered how to get the referral, let’s fast forward to your first session with a therapist you’ve contacted. As I’ve suggested previously, it’s really important to think of first therapy sessions as interviews of sorts. As much I hate to say it, there are some therapists out there who probably shouldn’t be practicing. Even more significantly, an outstanding amount of research has shown that the primary mechanism of change in therapy is accounted for by the relationship between therapist and client. For these reasons it’s important to be thoughtful about this process, and to check in with yourself when you see someone for the first time.

It’s ultimately very personal, but here are a few rules-of-thumb for how to decide whether a therapist is the right one for you: A good therapist will make you feel like he or she “gets it” (or at least is trying to), and you shouldn’t feel judged or condemned for anything you reveal. You should feel safe, and you should feel comfortable. If you don’t, listen to your gut.

How your first session will go will depend on a couple of factors, like the therapist’s theoretical orientation, as well as the setting. For example, cognitive behavioral therapists are more likely to do formal intakes when they work in private practice because they want to get a very clear sense of what the problem is and how to approach it, while psychodynamic therapists are usually less structured. You’re also more likely to encounter formal intake procedures if you’re being seen in some sort of clinic or agency. Regardless of the paperwork, however, you should be given some space on this first day to talk a little bit about your circumstances and why you’ve decided to see a therapist. During this time, try to evaluate your present experience while you’re talking. Does it feel like the person is listening? Does he or she seem empathic? Ideally you’ll feel like you’ve found a safe place to lay your burden down. If you do, you’re probably in good hands.

More than anything what I hope you’ll take away from this is that you don’t need to work with the first therapist you’re referred to. This relationship will be a significant one for you, so choose wisely.

I hope that I’ve clarified a few things and helped people to make some decisions. If you have any further questions, please take a look at our Resource page.

Photo credit: rumpelstiltskin1