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How to pick a therapist

Jan. 30, 2018
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Out of all the darkness plaguing American culture of late, at least one good thing as emerged: more people are talking about the importance of mental health than ever before. Frank and open discussion of mental illness and self-care has increasingly been the order of the day, and it’s become more and more common to see people sharing details of their mental health diagnoses and treatment regimens. At the top of pretty much every list? Therapy—and lots of it.

But you don’t need to be struggling with your mental health to benefit from seeing a therapist. You could just be going through a rough patch, like a layoff or difficult breakup, or perhaps you just want to understand yourself better. Whatever your reasons, going to see a therapist is one of the healthiest decisions you could make for yourself—as long as you pick the right one! Bad therapy, or therapy from a professional who is not a good fit for your needs, is worse than no therapy at all.

So how do you find the right therapist for you? The process can feel pretty overwhelming, but it’s not that difficult as long as you take it one step at a time. If you’re not sure where to start, just follow these guidelines—you’ll be a therapy veteran before you know it.

Create a Checklist

Why are you looking for a therapist? Are you struggling with particular issues, such as substance abuse or self-confidence? Do you want your therapist to have experience dealing with racism or the LGBT community? Do you want a woman? A man? Make a list of what you’re looking for. If possible, determine how many of these things are preferences rather than requirements. If you don’t know what you want yet, that’s okay, too! Just spend some time thinking about it so that you’ll be able to recognize a good or bad fit.

Look in Network

If you have health insurance, you may be able to find someone in network who is a good fit for you. Ask your insurer for a list of therapists, and do your research on the available options to see if any of these providers will be able to give you what you need. Keep in mind that there are many excellent therapists who do not accept insurance, so if none of your in-network options seem like the right fit and you’re willing and able to spend a little more money, it’s best not to settle—most insurance companies will let you submit out-of-network claims for partial reimbursement.

Check your Nearest Community Center

If you’re in college or a member of a marginalized community, you may be able to check community resources for cheap or free mental health services. Many LGBT centers or campus health centers have in-house therapists you can see; in addition, these sorts of places often offer group therapy.

Look Through a Database

Sometimes the hardest part of finding a therapist is knowing where to look. Psychology Today has a comprehensive database of therapists which lets you filter by insurance provider, specialty, sexuality, and other factors. Good Therapy also has a terrific database. This is where your checklist comes in handy!

Consider Interns or Sliding-Scale

If cash is tight but you’ve decided that an out-of-network therapist is your best bet, you have some options! Both Psychology Today and Good Therapy include interns in their databases. Interns have completed their degree programs but need to fulfill a certain amount of hours of work under a licensed supervisor before they can receive their own license; as such, they’re less experienced but typically much cheaper than fully-licensed professionals, and many of them are already very good at what they do. Whether you go for an intern or a therapist who already has a license, you can also ask the therapists you’re considering whether they have “sliding-scale” options available for a fraction of their full fee.

Hold Tryouts

It’s good to talk to a therapist before committing to them—email is an option for this, but you should be able to meet most therapists over the phone or even in person without paying for a session. You don’t have to divulge the reasons you’re seeking therapy right out of the gate, but if you give your potential therapist some extra information on what you’re looking for, it will be easier for them to determine if this is the right fit. Feel free to ask about their specialties, professional background, or preferred style of therapy. If you’ve decided that a therapist may not be the best fit, don’t be afraid to ask them for recommendations to other providers—they might have some ideas as to who may be a better choice for you. Don’t be timid: most therapists want you to find the right provider for you, even if it turns out that they are not that person!