By Ernie Hood
“I’ve decided I need help. How do I go about finding a therapist who is right for me?”
If you’ve been asking that question, we’re here to help. We’ve consulted experts who
specialize in therapist selection to provide some solid advice on how to find the mental
health professional who will best help you.
Sources of Referrals
The first step in the journey is, naturally, to ask around. Dr. Dorothea Lack, an
independent clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of
California at San Francisco, recommends asking physicians. “They usually know who is
and who is not competent by their experience in the field,” she said.
Pasadena, California clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., agreed that family
physicians are a good source of referrals, along with spiritual community leaders,
friends or family. “Tread carefully with the latter, however, because you may not want to
have the same therapist as a family member or close friend,” he cautioned. He
observed that today many people start their search online with a therapist directory like
the ones provided by Psychology Today or GoodTherapy.org; these sites allow you to
narrow your search based on location, insurance, specialties, and other criteria.
Questions to Ask
Once you’ve identified some candidates based on the logistical criteria, speak to at least
three therapists, or potentially more if it takes you longer to find one with whom you feel
a good rapport.
The interviewing process will help you achieve a more refined feel for what you’re
looking for. Ask if the practitioner has experience working with your particular issue, and
how he or she would work with you on it. “While you’re looking for reasonable answers
to those questions, you should also pay attention to two things: Did you feel listened to?
And were the answers communicated in a way I could understand?” advised Howes.
“Just as important as what is said is the quality of communication between the two of
you…relationship is the most important thing.”
Lack suggested a slightly different approach. She said that “questions are not the
client’s job. The client should give an honest accounting of what brings him or her there,
and the therapist will guide the intake to get the necessary information.”
The good fit
“A good fit is essential,” said Lack. How can you tell? She endorsed an intuitive
approach. “If it feels good and right, it is right.”
Howes agreed. “It’s the most important factor,” he said. “You’ll know it’s a good fit if you
feel like there’s a genuine respect and curiosity conveyed by the therapist. Consider it
this way: Two therapists are equally qualified and experienced, but Therapist A makes
you feel intimidated and awkward and you often find yourself tongue-tied, while
sessions with Therapist B have a respectful flow and you feel free to speak your mind.
Where do you think you’ll make the most progress?”
Howes also emphasized the value of intuition. “In the end, you should weigh the
logistics and practical issues that go into a decision like this, as well as listen to your
gut,” he said.
Both experts stressed the importance of ensuring that the therapist is licensed or under
the supervision of a licensed professional, and that they have training and experience
working with your issue. Lack said the therapist should also preferably be a Ph.D. or an
M.D. with some experience. “Your research should be about qualifications, because
there are lots of untrained people out there,” she warned. In your search, you should
also take into account whether you feel you may need medication as part of your
therapeutic program. Psychiatrists have medical degrees and are licensed to prescribe
medicines. Psychologists must partner with an M.D. if medication is considered a
Howes noted that although the type of degree, the model of treatment, and the years of
experience are certainly significant, “Research into effective therapy consistently shows
that the match between therapist and client is the most important thing, and determining
that takes research, personal experience, and patience.”
Remember: Don’t despair if the first person you meet with doesn’t feel right. You’re
taking an important step in seeking help; keep looking until you find the therapist who is
a good match for you!