Sunday Scaries

How to find and pick the right therapist for you

Let's start with how to know what you're looking for.

National surveys indicate that nearly six in 10 American adults have sought or considered mental health treatments for themselves or others. That doesn’t mean that all these individuals, in turn, go to therapy. There are major barriers to getting mental health care — including getting an appointment in the first place.

According to a 2018 poll, 46 percent of Americans who have never gone to therapy report that they wouldn’t know where to start even if they did want to go to therapy. Meanwhile, a 2017 poll indicates that, while most adults would like to talk to a therapist, only one-third have ever talked to their primary care provider about their mental health concerns.

It’s daunting enough to realize that you’re ready for therapy. Actually figuring out how to go therapy shouldn’t be emotionally taxing, too. In an effort to help that process become a bit more digestible, here’s a guide for how to start your search for a therapist — and how to know what you’re looking for.

Where to start

Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist, recommends that after a person realizes they want to go therapy, they ask a health professional they already know — such as their general practitioner or family doctor -- for a recommendation. They’ll have a better sense of your issues and personality than an internet search, Badali tells me.

A tricky thing about using the internet is that, many times, the search will lead to listings that require therapists to pay for the privilege of being listed. Because of this, Badali says, “you can miss some of the best therapists because they don’t need to advertise.”

Dr. Michael O’Loughlin, a licensed psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, also says that it’s useful to ask people that you know if they’ve had a good experience with a particular therapist. He tells me that while many people scan Psychology Today for therapists in their area, most of his referrals come from word-of-mouth recommendations.

Still, if searching online is the right choice for you, there are options. The American Psychological Association has a “psychologist locator” database, and there are two databases specifically designed so people can find therapists who specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This list is for CBT therapists in Canada, and this is the list for CBT therapists in the United States. You can also check out how other people reviewed different therapists on sites like ZocDoc and Healthgrades.

Shop around for someone who's a good fit. Maskot/Getty Images

What to look for

Finding the right therapist is a bit like dating -- you have to find a person who works for you. It’s also very helpful to get a sense of what you want to get out of therapy and to educate yourself on what different therapy options are out there. Badali says that if a person has a specific reason for seeking therapy, she recommends finding someone who uses science-based practices for treating that particular issue.

“Find someone who knows what they are doing and helps a lot of people with similar issues to yours,” Badali explains. “You should be able to get that information before you spend money or time on a visit with someone.”

Then, she says, “you may have to go shopping for someone who is a good ‘fit,’ but at least you’ve already narrowed down your search.

There are lots of client-therapist relationship factors to choose from as personal priorities. Badali’s personal top three are “warmth, empathy, and unconditional positive regard.” O’Loughlin says that other things to keep in mind are the cost of the service, whether or not the therapist appears to have a desire to be helpful, as well as “a sense of respect and an interest in you.”

“Visit with more than one therapist to see how comfortable the fit is,” O’Loughlin recommends. “It is, in some cases, a matter of chemistry, and in some sense an evaluation of whether this therapist can be helpful.”

During her first meeting with clients, Badali makes a point of relaying to them that in order to get positive psychotherapy outcomes, there has to be a good working relationship between a therapist and a client. It’s important that a person and their therapist can agree on therapy goals, and that the client feels comfortable giving back feedback during the course of the treatment.

Research shows therapy can teach patients life skills that last beyond the course of treatment. But you have to find a way to receive that therapy — and figure out what therapist is right for you — first.

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