A Primer to Therapy: How to Choose a Therapist Who Is Right for You

August 05, 2019

Young woman meeting with a therapist
Erin Ollila

Lately, you've been struggling, and you don't know how to choose a therapist to help you through it. Maybe your mind is racing and your chest is always in knots. Maybe you're in the throes of depression, and even getting out of bed has become nearly impossible. Or maybe your emotions are too big to control. Whatever the reason, you know you need support.

Making the decision to start therapy is a major step in your journey toward mental health. But finding the right therapist can be daunting. With so many professionals with various specialties and credentials — not to mention personalities and approaches — you might not know where to begin.

First, know that you're not alone: According to Mental Health in America, approximately 44 million Americans suffer from mental illnesses. By exploring common questions asked by others who have been where you are, you'll find the answers you need to find the right therapist for you.

How Do I Search for a Therapist?

In many ways, the process of finding a therapist can feel like finding the right job. Just as you'd start your job search by getting a sense of opportunities in your area, the process of finding the right therapist begins with learning more about the professionals around you.

Start with an online search. Phrases such as "therapists near me," "therapy near me," or "therapists [or therapy] in [your city or town]" can help you identify therapeutic resources in your area. There are other online tools that are equally as helpful. Psychology Today's Find a Therapist tool not only provides a listing of therapists in your area, but also features their photos, biographies and contact information so you can get a sense of a professional before you contact them for a consultation.

If you have health insurance, your provider may offer an online portal allowing you to search for medical professionals and filter by specialty. Employers may offer an employee assistance program (EAP). Through this, you'll likely have access to one free appointment with a counselor in your area. If they aren't a fit, they may be able to suggest a peer or network who would be more suitable.

Finally, if you're comfortable doing so, ask your family and friends for suggestions. Not only is this a great way to get trusted, first-hand information on local therapists, but it's also a good way to build a foundation of support outside of your future therapist's office.

Before you make a decision about who you want to see, take a moment to familiarize yourself with what various therapist credentials mean. Many websites, such as What's Your Grief, can offer insight into how credentials reflect a person's training and, likely, what the foundation of your experience might look like.

What Therapeutic Approaches Should I Consider?

Therapy comes in many forms; often, your therapist can help guide you toward the kind of treatment best suited for you. Some common therapies are:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is among the most widely known talk therapy-based approaches. This treatment style seeks to help you recognize and challenge negative thought patterns. Over time, this practice can become habitual; as that happens, many find that their struggles become easier to handle.

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): DBT, a modified version of CBT, is developed to provide practical tools and skills to support emotion regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and core mindfulness. This approach is supplemented with worksheets, readings and group therapy.

  • Group Therapy: In group therapy, people sharing similar mental health struggles gather to support one another and share experiences under the leadership of a trained mental health professional. This approach is a potent way to develop support and find solutions to real-life problems, and is often used as a supplement to other forms of individual therapy.

  • Psychopharmacological Therapy: Medication alone won't be the key to mental health, but often, doctors and therapists recommend a combination of medication and psychotherapy for the best possible result. Psychiatrists often collaborate with therapists, or, in some cases, provide therapy as part of their practice, to treat mental illness in the most complete way possible.

How Do I Choose a Therapist?

Setting up a consultation is not the last step in finding the right therapist for you. You'll want to use your first meeting or two as a kind of interview to gauge mutual fit between yourself and your therapist. After all, you'll be developing a relationship with this person, and it can be difficult to be honest if you don't feel completely safe with them.

Before you head into your first session, draft a list of questions for your therapist that will help identify whether this person aligns with your needs and priorities. After the session, review your notes and take a moment to consider your future in this professional relationship.

Your questions could include:

  • How long have you been practicing?

  • How much do you charge? Do you take my insurance? If not, are there options to pay on a sliding scale?

  • Do you have experience working with patients like me? What approach do you take when treating patients in my situation?

  • What expectations do you have for your patients?

  • How will our sessions be structured? Will there be homework assignments?

  • How do you approach setting goals with your patients?

  • How frequently should we meet?

Learning how to choose a therapist is a critical step along the road to recovery from mental illness. They will empathize with you, challenge you and equip you with the skills and tools you need. Once you find them, the work you do together will propel you toward a better future, and help you live your best life.

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