How to find the right therapist for you

This will take about 5 minutes to read.

If you’ve ever considered therapy, perhaps the biggest hurdle is trying to find someone you’ll both like and trust, not to mention someone with the right kind of training and experience for your needs.

Unlike most consumer related activity, it’s difficult to find reliable reviews for therapists. And for those reviews that are there, therapists can’t legally respond, because it would be a breach of confidentiality.

So, unfortunately, reviews for therapists are highly unreliable, and unless you personally know someone who has a therapist who specializes in what you need, you’re left to Google’s best guess at who might be a good fit for you.

So, how do you find the right therapist?

To begin with, make a list of what you need help with, and questions to ask the therapist. That will help you find a few potential therapists, and these questions will help you further narrow that list. Also, consult with your primary care physician, ask your friends, and use resources like state, local, and national professional associations to find someone in your area.

This research should help you make a short list of names to interview over the phone. Once you’re having that initial phone call, ask the following questions to get a sense for that therapist’s personality, experience, and style.

1. Ask about their specialties

This is critical. Some therapists have a wealth of training and experience in some areas, like addiction, yet are less experienced with the nuances of others, like extramarital affairs. Most  therapists list their specialties on their website and association listings, so start here.

2. Does age or gender matter to you?

Once you’ve found people who specialize in what you need, consider if age or gender matter to you. If you’d prefer to meet with someone of your own gender who is older (and theoretically wiser), this will help you narrow down your list.

However, depending on where you live, and your specific therapeutic needs, you options may be limited in this respect. If you don’t find someone who matches all your specialty/age/gender criteria, pick someone who specializes in what you need, as this may be more important than age or gender.

3. What kind of education and training does the therapist have?

If you have a long list still (lucky you!), then dig into the therapists’ education and experience to further narrow your list. For example, a therapist with a doctorate might be important to you, or perhaps you’re comfortable meeting with someone with any level of higher education. Unsure of all the possibilities? Use this therapist training cheat sheet to better understand the differences.

What kind of training does a therapist with a doctorate (PsyD or PhD) have?

A therapist with a doctorate goes through the most amount of schooling. The training is academically rigorous training, which includes unpaid practicums in clinical settings for 3 years that is not counted towards licensure hours. After these practicums, the student goes on to a pre-doctoral internship, and finally does a post-doctoral training of at least 1,500 hours. By the time this person is eligible to sit for her licensure exams, she has completed more than 3,000 hours of hands on training.

Therapists with doctorates can do psychological testing, which includes personality testing, cognitive testing (e.g., learning disabilities), and more. Some prefer to do just straight “talk therapy”, while others employ more structured techniques like CBT. The therapists’ style will depend on their personal preferences, but all therapist will be trained in multiple therapeutic approaches.

These therapists also take several years more classes than other levels, including intensive classes on statistic and research methods, which helps them better understand research materials, and some choose to conduct their own research.

What kind of training does an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) have?

An LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker. These therapists hold a master’s degree in social work, and often practice in a community based setting (such as a school, clinic or hospital). These therapists also might be in private practice.

What kind of training does an LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist) have?

Someone with an LMFT has a master’s degree. The focus of the education is on psychotherapy in general, and marriage and family therapy in particular. These providers can also, of course, work with individuals. They have less classroom training than someone who holds a doctorate, but still receive years of supervised training. They often work in private practice.

What kind of training does a LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor) have?

Individuals who are licensed as LPCCs, hold a master’s degree and offer treatment and counseling to those with mental health and substance abuse issues. They receive years of supervised trainings as well and often work in private practice.

What kind of training does a psychiatrist have?

Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors. They can prescribe medications, and they spend much of their time with patients on medication management. Some psychiatrists go on to do additional psychotherapy training. They often work in private practice.

Questions to ask a therapist when interviewing

Now that you’ve made your short list, it’s time to make some phone calls. Contact a few (2-4 is a good number) who seem like they might be a good fit based on your needs and preferences.

Once you’re on the phone, consider the following:

  • How quickly does the therapist call you back? Are they responsive, or too busy to take a call?
  • Is their demeanor more empathic or business like?
  • Do they ask you about your therapeutic needs & concerns?
  • Do they have a referral if your needs aren’t a good fit?

We recommend that you ask the therapist these questions:

1. How do you know if your therapy is working? How do you measure success?

When you’re in therapy, you’ll have a sense when your concerns are being resolved, and your therapist will be aware of it too. You will feel less anxious, depressed, irritable. You may stop worrying and start to enjoy life again. Maybe you’ve come in in order to work on a single problem and notice that you’ve solved it. Once you are ready to stop going to therapy, your therapist will help you make a plan for termination. Having an established, long term relationship with a therapist is a wonderful thing, because you can easily come back when you need to.

A good therapist will like it when you’re feeling better and able to terminate. If you’re concerns have resolved after therapy, you’ll have a general sense of feeling more hopeful in life, and if you find the right therapist, you’ll leave the first session already more hopeful, like everything is going to be ok. This is a great sign you’ve found a great match.

2. How do you approach therapy? Do you prefer a structured approach, or not?

All therapists are different. Personally, I don’t do straight CBT as it’s too structured for me.

Some therapists give homework, while others will want to keep the emotional work in the safety of the office.

Some therapists are more relational in their style, while others may not talk a lot, or aren’t very interactive. This is more of a traditional psychoanalytic approach, and may not be for everyone.

3. What’s your experience with my concerns?

A potential therapist should have experience with your concerns. You’ll be able to tell quickly, if a therapist is intimate with the nuances of the kinds of needs you have by the questions they ask, the trainings (and continuing education) they’ve done, and their demeanor.

4. What kind of payment do you accept?

If you’re doing research, you might find yourself frustrated by how few experienced therapists take insurance. Financial concerns are important, and it may be helpful to know why most therapists in private practice only take private pay. First, most therapists graduate their years of schooling and (unpaid) training with a mountain of debt. And insurance reimbursement is just a small fraction of what they could charge with private pay. Plus accepting insurance requires more paper work on the therapist’s behalf, meaning they have less hours to meet with clients, on top of the lower pay.

Therapists also have a good deal of financial upkeep, including insurance, office space, continuing education and association fees, meaning they need to cover these high costs while also making a sustainable income. This financial reality is unfortunate, and means that therapy is often costly. Yet with the right therapist, the rewards will be well worth it.

Finally, after you’ve done this research, schedule a session so that you can see how you connect. Do you like the person and feel comfortable with them? If so, then you’ve found your therapist! If not, read on.

What to do if you have a mismatch?

After all this work, it’s possible that you might not strike gold just yet. Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there, and you’ll know it after your first meeting. If you haven’t found the right therapist yet, ask that therapist for referrals. She’ll likely feel it too and have someone in mind that you haven’t come across yet. If you don’t find someone immediately, try again. There’s a great therapist out there for you.

In short, here’s how to find a great therapist:

  1. Do some research to create a shortlist of potential therapists
  2. Call these therapists and briefly interview them
  3. Have an initial session with 1-2 therapists

If you have a mismatch, ask that therapist for referrals