How to Find an Effective Therapist/Mental Health Counselor

therapist talking to her patient

If you’re considering therapy/counseling — whether it’s to restore a relationship, recover from trauma, adjust to a new life phase, or improve your mental health — finding the right therapist/mental health counselor is the first hurdle to cross.

Researchers have found that the bond between you and your therapist/counselor is likely to have a big impact on your growth. That’s why it’s important to do your research, ask questions, and pay attention to your own responses in your search for the therapist that’s right for you.

Here are some tried-and-true methods for finding a therapist/counselor to help you reach your goals.

1. Consult your provider directory 

If you plan to pay for therapy through your insurance plan, your first step might be to look through your plan’s provider network.

It’s also a good idea to find out whether your plan limits the number of sessions you can attend each year and whether using an out-of-network therapist will affect your out-of-pocket costs.

2. Ask someone you trust

A referral from a friend, colleague, or doctor you trust is another way to find a therapist who might be a good fit for you.

While a referral is a good place to start, it’s important to recognize that you may have different needs and goals with your therapy than the person giving you the recommendation.

So, a good match for one of you might not be as beneficial to the other.

3. Use a reliable online database 

A number of mental health organizations maintain up-to-date, searchable databases of licensed therapists.

Your search could start as simply as typing in your ZIP code to generate a list of counselors in your area. You may also be able to search for specialists, like marriage and family counselors or therapists who focus on drug and alcohol use.

Some of the most commonly used online search tools include:

4. Explore local resources

Your community may also have resources to help you. If you’re a student, your school might provide access to a counseling center.

If you’re employed, your human resources team might offer a list of therapists available through a workplace wellness or employee assistance program.

If you need counseling related to domestic or sexual abuse, you might be able to find group or individual therapy through a local advocacy organization.

If you want your faith to inform your treatment, you might consider reaching out to your church, synagogue, mosque, or other worship centers for a list of licensed therapists affiliated with your faith.

5. Reach out to organizations that address your area of concern

If you’re looking for a therapist to help with a specific mental health issue, you might find local therapists through a national association, network, or helpline.

Here are a few examples of organizations that offer search tools to help you find a specialized therapist near you:

If your job is a source of stress and anxiety, you might find local therapists through a professional organization.

Many of these organizations and trade unions have resources to help you identify professionals who can assist with mental health needs. For example, the International Association of Firefighters offers help with mental health, PTSD, and substance abuse.

6. Think about your goals ahead of time

What do you want to accomplish in therapy? Studies have found that when you and your therapist both work together toward the same goals, your outlook will be better.

If you think some type of medication may help with your symptoms, you’ll want to find a psychiatrist or practitioner who can prescribe medications.

If you want to be part of a supportive network of people who understand your experiences, you may want to consider looking for a therapist who’s involved with support groups or group therapy sessions.

Your goals may change as you work with a therapist. It’s okay to talk to your therapist about changing the direction of your treatment plan as your needs evolve.

7. Try an online therapy app

Talkspace and Betterhelp both offer tools to help you explore the kind of therapy you want. They can also match you with a licensed, accredited therapist you can work with online or via phone.

Some people find a digital therapy platform to be more convenient and more affordable than in-person therapy. Weekly sessions range from $35 to $80 for online therapy.

8. Ask questions about the things that matter to you

When you meet your therapist, whether it’s online, on the phone, or in person, it’s not uncommon to completely forget every question you wanted to ask.

To make sure you have the information you need to make a good decision, keep paper and a pen, or a notes app, handy for a few days before your meeting. Jot down questions as they come to you.

The American Psychological Association suggests a few questions for you to consider asking your therapist during your first session:

  • Are you a licensed psychologist in this state?
  • How many years have you been in practice?
  • How much experience do you have working with people who are dealing with [the issue you’d like to resolve]?
  • What do you consider to be your specialty or area of expertise?
  • What kinds of treatments have you found effective in resolving [the issue you’d like to resolve]?
  • What insurance do you accept?
  • Will I need to pay you directly and then seek reimbursement from my insurance company, or do you bill the insurance company?
  • Are you part of my insurance network?
  • Do you accept Medicare or Medicaid?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America adds questions like these:

  • If I need medication, can you prescribe it or recommend someone who does?
  • Do you provide access to telehealth services?
  • How soon can I expect to start feeling better?
  • What do we do if our treatment plan isn’t working?

Note: If you’ve ever been abused by someone in authority or affected by historic trauma or racism, you may want to ask questions that help you find out whether a potential therapist is culturally informed and sensitive to your experiences.

9. Pay close attention to your own responses

No matter how many professional accreditations your therapist has, your own feelings of trust and comfort should be your top priority. Will therapy be uncomfortable from time to time? Possibly. After all, you’ll likely be discussing difficult, personal topics.

But if you feel uncomfortable with your therapist for any other reason, it’s all right to look for someone else.

You don’t need a reason to switch therapists. It’s enough that you don’t feel comfortable.

Here are a few things to notice as you talk with your therapist:

  • Does the therapist interrupt you, or do they listen carefully to what you’re saying?
  • How does your body feel during a therapy session? Do you feel tense?
  • Does the therapist respect your time by being prompt to appointments?
  • Does the therapist brush off or invalidate your concerns?
  • Do you feel seen, heard, and respected during your session?

The bottom line

Whether you’re coping with grief, trauma, or relationship issues, or want treatment for a mental illness, finding a helpful therapist/counselor can make a big difference in your journey.

Ultimately, finding the right therapist/counselor is a personal matter. Human connection is at the heart of effective therapy, and you can build that sense of connection whether you meet your therapist in person, on the phone, or online.

Resource: “9 Tips for Finding the Right Therapist” by Healthline

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