What You Need to Know When Choosing a Therapist

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Now that refreshingly real talk about mental health is emerging in Hollywood, on social media, and even among royalty, the stigma around therapy is starting to erode in a major way. But there's still one big, overwhelming hurdle that many newbies face once they've decided to seek help: How do you find the therapist that's right for you?

Thankfully, therapy comes in many forms these days, from app-enabled sessions to seeing a professional on the run—literally. And once you've familiarized yourself with the landscape, there are lots of resources to help you meet your perfect match. Here, experts break down the steps everyone should take during their search for a therapist. Yes there's a little bit of research involved—but that's what out-of-office mental health days are for, no?

Keep reading for four things to consider when you're choosing a therapist. 

How to find a therapist that's right for you
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First, determine the type of therapist you need

A “therapist” or "psychotherapist" is an umbrella term that encompasses psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, and counselor, and each certification has different areas of expertise and methods.

For instance, psychologists have “completed a doctorate program and are licensed to administer particular diagnostic tests on individual clients," said Kara Merrill, LICSW, a therapist at Minneapolis’ Mind. Body. Self. "Their focus of treatment is often on the brain and how it affects behaviors.” 

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are doctors who go to medical school to study and treat mental illness. "They are the only therapists that can prescribe medications to clients," Merrill says. Social workers and counselors often assist clients with a broader range of issues and usually only require a masters degree to be licensed.

So how do you know whether you’d benefit most from, say, Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness therapy or music therapy? Well, you’ve got to make contact and ask questions. (More on that in a minute.)

Narrowing down what you need will be critical to your success. “You wouldn’t go to an orthopedist about your heart, so why go to a therapist who specializes in couples when you’re single and experiencing anxiety?" says Juanita Davis, LCSW, a therapist at Collier Counseling, LLC in Atlanta.

Then, hone in on the particulars  

These are some of the questions you must ask yourself before you look for a therapist: Does the therapist's gender matter? Are you looking for someone who Skypes? Are you seeking long-term therapy or do you want to be laser-focused on an issue for just a few months? Do you want a therapist who listens with compassion or would you prefer someone who gives you the concrete tools you need for problem solving?

These are important factors because you want to work with someone that you’re comfortable with and who can best meet your reasons for coming to therapy," says Davis. Because “therapy is such an intimate relationship,” you want to make sure you can be “fully invested in the process,” Davis says. And that's hard to do when you and your mental health pro are out of sync in fundamental ways. 

How to find a therapist that's right for you
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Next, get in touch 

Your online search can take you to plenty of outlets, but Davis says to stick with reputable sites such as Psychology Today and Good Therapy. They are easily searchable with filters that allow you to narrow your search by gender, race/ethnicity, specific problems, and treatment modalities.

Another great way to find a therapist is to get a reference or recommendation from a friend, family member, or doctor, says David Sternberg, LICSW, the founder and director of Washington’s DC Talk Therapy.

Once you have a few therapists who fit your criteria, get in touch either through email or phone—though keep in mind you'll get a better feel for someone's personality through an actual conversation. It’s an excellent idea for anyone who is thinking about starting therapy to make that call,” Sternberg says. “Any therapist worth their salt would be open to doing that.”

While this call “shouldn’t be a therapy session,” Sternberg says, you can use it as an opportunity to ask questions like "What can I expect in the first session?" If you don’t click with the therapist, don't be afraid to move on or ask them for a reference.

You should take your time finding the right therapist because you’ll be sharing things that you’ve probably never shared with anyone before,” Davis says. “It will become one of the most important relationships in your life.” Think about it this way: You wouldn't choose to settle down with a partner just because they were the first one you matched with on Bumble, would you? 

Finally, settle in—and give it time

Merrill says one of the biggest deterrents to seeking therapy is the fear and anxiety associated with sharing a personal story. "It takes a willingness to be a bit vulnerable to talk to a stranger about your innermost thoughts and feelings," she says. “For someone who is new to therapy, it’s a courageous act,” adds Sternberg.

That's why experts say you should see your new therapist for at least three sessions before deciding if they're a good fit—it'll give you time to get comfortable with that person. If you quickly feel at ease, you can really start getting down to the nitty gritty of why you’re there. And if you don’t mesh well together, start back at step one. What’s most important is you’re actively trying to make forward strides. Believe in the process and keep going—because getting help is always worth it

Know someone who's struggling with their mental health? Check out these tips for talking about suicide and helping a loved one battling depression.

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