There are few tasks more important and yet more bewildering than selecting a therapist. There are so many diverse terms, titles, labels and orientations in the world of professional counselors and therapists, it can be difficult for the layperson to navigate the maze. In addition, choosing a therapist is a very personal matter. This is a person with whom we are going to have deep and intimate conversations. It is understandable that we want to choose the “right” person.
While there is no single set of criteria for selecting a therapist, here are some factors to consider:
Some medical plans include mental health provisions. Often insurance providers or managed care organizations have a panel of providers, with several options of professionals in local area. Some people do not like to use insurance for privacy reasons, but the advantage is clearly one of reduced costs.
Secure a recommendation from a trusted friend, clergyperson, school personnel or physician. A recommendation from a satisfied customer is a good thing. Be cautious, however. What worked for your best friend may not be the best match of a therapist for you.
Choose a therapist who is licensed by the state and/or certified by a professional organization. Such credentials mean that this therapist meets the minimum requirements of the profession. The state’s regulatory agency or various professional organizations offer web sites that verify a therapist’s credentials and record any “clouds” on the therapist’s record.
If you have a particular area of concern, i.e. alcoholic abuse, marital difficulties, career issues or serious mental illness, select a therapist based on their stated areas of expertise. It is helpful to work with a therapist who knows something about your particular problem. However, if you are not clear about your area of concern or think your issue is complicated, choose a skilled therapist who is a generalist, who can walk with you through your issues and if necessary refer you to an appropriate specialist.
The most skilled therapists are those who have been in the field for many years. Therapy is an art as much as it is a science. Academic credentials do not always translate to therapeutic skill. If faced with a choice, choose the most experienced therapist, rather than the one with the most academic degrees.
Some people prefer to choose a therapist who is “like them,” similar in terms of age, gender, race, religion and socio-economic bracket. Or if you are coming to therapy as a couple or family, you might choose a therapist like the most reluctant member of the family. Such similarities help you (or your spouse or child) to feel understood by your therapist and to feel that your therapist is someone you can “relate to.” However, choosing a therapist from a different social location can also be very beneficial, often providing you with a perspective your problems that you had not previously considered.
Most therapists recognize these days that psychotherapy is never completely value free, as much as reputable therapists might try to keep it value free. Some people want a therapist who shares similar values as they do, particularly around some of the hot button issues, like religion, abortion and politics. Do not try to find a therapist who passes your litmus tests. Rather expect your therapist to acknowledge openly his or her values, respect your values and be open to working together toward agreed upon goals.
Be aware of therapists who are overly self-promoting, charismatic or who make glowing promises of success. Such therapists are often so absorbed with their own needs that they will not fully pay attention to your needs.
Some therapists are open to an initial “no obligation, get acquainted” meeting. Some will even provide such a session without charge. Most therapists are not offended if you want to choose a therapist other than her or him or want to think about it a while. Ask for a free introductory meeting.
You are never locked into therapy or a particular therapist. You can change your mind, drop out or choose another therapist. On the other hand, give it a fair trial period, say six weeks, before you evaluate the success or failure of your therapy, and above all else, communicate with your therapist regularly about how things are going in therapy, whether your goals are being met, and how your therapist can be more effective and helpful to you. Most therapists want nothing more than to truly, professionally and compassionately help you find a richer and fuller life.
R. Scott Sullender, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist PSY 8931