I get questions all the time about how to choose a therapist. In my experience, it usually comes from somebody who has tried therapy in the past and for one reason or another it just didn’t work out. Maybe they are thinking about starting up again, and not sure how to find the right fit.
It’s a super overwhelming process. In my area alone, Psychology Today (a common platform people use to search for local clinicians) probably has no less than 500 clinicians listed. Everyone seems to have different letters behind their name (which represent degrees and certifications). Some say they work with every issue under the sun, others list only one or two. How confusing!
Soooo, here are a few basic tips to guide you through the process of how to choose a therapist.
Step 1: Decide if you absolutely need to bill your insurance directly (in-network benefits or INN), or if you have and can use your out-of-network (OON) benefits. Many counselors and psychologists (myself included) choose to remain unaffiliated with insurance panels. This allows us greater focus on the clinical work, keeping the hands of insurance companies out of your incredibly personal therapy work. If you have a Preferred Provider Organization plan (PPO vs. HMO) you probably have out-of-network benefits and can use those for your therapy (in a few words, this means you pay the therapist directly and then get reimbursed back from the insurance company). I plan to write a whole blog post soon about how to call your insurance and ask about these benefits!
Anyway, if it’s a “yes, I need to use insurance,” then call insurance and ask for a list of behavioral health providers (therapists) in their network. Then only look at those as you go through the rest of these steps (keep in mind you may need to consider more potential good options as those on insurance panels tend to have long waitlists for new clients). If it’s a “no, I don’t have to use insurance”, proceed to step 2!
Step 2: Look for someone you could see yourself opening up to. Now we settle in and start digging through the options. Psychology Today is a website that is a trusted source to search for local providers. You can scan the pages, or search specific names (like those your insurance network gave you). Google is a great place to look as well, and consider looking at information like Google Reviews.
We are all human and have natural preferences and people we are just more drawn to. In therapy, we typically want to work with that, not against it. Set aside for a moment all the degrees and certifications and pretty offices. It’s crucial that you find a psychologist or counselor that you can imagine getting comfortable with. I truly believe that every clinician is not right for every client! This is what you might call liking someone’s “vibe”, and it matters.
At times, step 2 might be where training, degrees, and areas of expertise comes into play. In getting a doctorate and training as a counseling psychologist, I have a certain belief system and approach to treatment that will be different than those who were trained as social workers, Christian counselors, or licensed professional counselors (most of which are master’s level trained clinicians). This does not mean we aren’t all really solid clinicians in what we do- but there might be some important differences in how our backgrounds have prepared us to engage with you in therapy.
Step 3: In the reality of 2020- do they offer in-person options for therapy, telehealth or both? And which do you prefer? Are they local enough that if you wanted to do in-person appointments down the line that you could? Again, I have lots of thoughts about this and plan to write some things down soon about the differences between in-person and virtual styles of therapy
So, now we have a few options. You’ve got a few people who you know are in line with your payment/insurance needs, you like their vibe, and you’re cool with their in-person or telehealth options for meeting. Awesome!
Step 4: The next step I would recommend is reaching out to these people, be it through email or telephone. Are they taking new clients? Do they have availability on the days/times you would be needing to schedule an appointment? An updated website will tell you very clearly, but if not, a simple telephone call or email should clarify. And as an aside, this is a good way to assess step 2 a little bit more.
I choose to offer a free 15 minute telephone consultation to potential clients so we can explore all of these steps I’ve listed here! We also get to talk about what they want to work on, how I tend to do therapy, and how we might fit together. I let them ask questions that are important to them in choosing a psychologist to work with. Like, have I worked with people struggling with their types of concerns? If it’s not a good match for any reason, I can give some suggestions or ideas for where they might look next. I LOVE these phone calls because even if we do not end up being a fit for one another, I so enjoy getting to make the process of accessing care more personable, less overwhelming and a tad bit easier for folks.
After those phone calls and emails, you should be pretty well prepared to make a decision. Did they respond quickly? Did they seem inviting and friendly? Which one checked all the boxes of your needs. Now, you can move forward and schedule a first appointment.
Step 5: Give it a shot and communicate often! This step might seem more related to how to engage in therapy after you’ve chosen a therapist, but I say not so fast!
I usually recommend people give it a month or two so that you can build a relationship, get past the anxiety and awkwardness, and try and get off the ground into some good work. That being said, it’s important that you share with your therapist how it’s going. Are they providing enough support? Do you feel like you need something different? Are you finding yourself a bit more relaxed each time you meet? All super helpful and allow them to tailor the sessions more towards what you need.
And there you have it. Simple right? NOOOOOT! I know that it can be hard to choose a therapist can be a stressful process on top of whatever stressors might be going on leading to you to seek counseling. Rest assured, there are wonderful psychologists, counselors, and social workers out there, and if you’re willing to do some work to find the right fit for you, some awesome things can happen in therapy. Good luck!