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5 Things to Look For When Picking a Therapist

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

Choosing to explore therapy is not always an easy decision, mainly because the things that lead us to treatment are painful and raw. These are the situations in our lives that beat us down. Cut us one emotion at a time. Keep us from believing in ourselves. Stop us from trying to reach our true potential. Therapy can be the turning point you were searching for if you are courageous enough to give it a shot.

“Courage doesn’t happen when you have all the answers. It happens when you are ready to face the questions you have been avoiding your whole life.” Shannon L. Alder

Having decided to go, though, comes the difficult choice of picking a therapist to see. Deborah Horton, LCPC, reminds us that, “It is absolutely okay to shop for a therapist to find the best fit for you.” What exactly should you be looking for, though?

Knowing that it is expected that you “shop around” for a therapist is only half the battle. You must be armed with the right questions to make the most of your search. Here are five questions and items you should consider: understanding what type of therapist you need and what all those letters stand for!

5 Things to Look For When Picking a Therapist

Know the difference between the types of mental health experts available and why that matters.

In your research, you likely noticed that there are many different credentials for experts in the mental health field. What does it all mean, and why does that matter to you?

The letters following someone’s last name can tell you a lot about what they can do, and if they are a good fit. Here are some titles that you might come across during your research:

  • LCAT: Licensed Creative Arts Therapist
  • LMFT: Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
  • LMSW, LCSW, or LCSW-R: Licensed Master Social Worker, Clinical Social Worker, or Licensed Master Clinical Social Worker “R”
  • Licensed Psychologist/Ph.D. or Psy.D: Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Psychology
  • Psychiatrist: Medical doctor with additional training and specialization in mental health
  • NPP-C: Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
  • PMHNP: Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

Knowing what these abbreviations mean can help narrow down your search. For example, if you are single and looking for help with PTSD, then someone who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is not going to be the best fit. If you have a disorder, like Bipolar disorder, then you will need someone who can provide medication. An LCAT will not be able to assist with medication needs.

Dr. Grace Tai explains that only psychiatrists can prescribe medication because, “All psychiatrists are trained as general physicians first (Doctor of Medicine — M.D.), followed by a residency and internship in a hospital or clinical setting. They can become certified with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology after eight to ten years of training.” The fact that they are medical doctors is the reason that they can prescribe medication if needed.

Do you take my insurance? Are you in-network?

Most people will be using their insurance benefits to help cover the cost of therapy. It essential to know if the therapist that you are interested in seeing can take your insurance and if they are in-network, as this changes the benefits payout.

Don’t have insurance? Then make sure to ask about self-pay options and rates. If you can not afford mental health care, here are some resources that may help. Please, don’t let money deter you from finding a therapist or counselor, as your emotional and mental health is an integral part of your overall well being.

Are your personalities compatible?

Most therapists offer a free first session. This session is your opportunity to get to know your potential therapist and make sure that your personalities mesh well enough. Think of it as a round of speed dating: you tell them a little bit about you, and they tell you a bit of their story. 

You can also learn a lot about a therapist from their office decor and their book selections. For instance, I feel much better when I walk in the office and see shelves and even more shelves of books. Not just medical journals that are in pristine condition, but books like The Body Keeps The Score, with cracked spines and worn looking covers. I feel much more comfortable hearing the repetitive sound of water flowing over rocks, basking in the glow of a pink salt lamp, versus sitting in a quiet professional looking office. 

Wall art is another opportunity to learn about your therapist’s personality. My therapist’s artwork covers the walls of her office as do stickers that say, “Tranquility,” “Calm,” and “Reflection.” There are little bird paintings that have hope, love, and dream written on them. Some people mind find this a little too hippy-dippy, but I love it! 

What type of therapy do they offer?

Something as simple as checking out their website before you meet with them can reveal how they practice therapy. There tons of different types of treatments available, as you can see here. According to Ernest S. Schmidt, LCSW, “Therapists who give a good amount of helpful information on their websites will typically have your best interests in mind and will be dedicated to helping you get the best results.”

Don’t know what type of therapy you are going to like? That is okay, but you might still want to know what kinds are out there and what kind works best with situations that might be similar to yours.

Feel free to ask your potential therapist, when was the last time they had a case similar to yours? What treatment plans do they recommend? 

Ask how they plan on assessing the progress you make.

Knowing their credentials, what type of therapy they offer, and what treatment plans look like is a significant first step, but you also want to know how they will help you feel better and how that looks. Assessing your progress is a crucial component of therapy.

You and the therapist you choose will be able to refer back to the treatment plan, or behaviors that brought you to therapy in the first place. When I initially questioned my therapist about how all of this worked, and if I would need to be there forever, she told me that it started with working through the trauma. I would gain tools to recognize when I was acting a certain way due to its effects. Not only that, but we would work on replacing old ways of reacting and thinking with new, healthier habits.  

For me, that is what I have spent the last year doing in therapy. I picked someone to whom I feel comfortable speaking. I laugh a lot, and I cry a lot. Sometimes, I leave there feeling vulnerable and anxious, but later, I feel like I learned something new about my own life. Therapy helped me restore my self-confidence, improve my relationship with loved ones, and help me find the courage to chase my dreams. 

You will benefit from therapy more than you know

The first five visits to my therapist, all I did was cry. I cried over things I thought I had control over. At one point, my husband asked me, “Why do you keep doing this to yourself if she makes you so sad.” I explained how she didn’t make me sad; she just “made” me acknowledge things I thought I had dealt with.

I now recommend therapy to everyone close to me and have many beautiful things to say about my therapist. I feel like we might be moving towards the end of this journey, but I am so thankful I asked her all these questions initially.

Knowing how I was going to be able to afford it was a weight off my shoulders. Finding someone who talked about “the universe” and was able to tailor her skills to align with my beliefs left me feeling safe and comfortable. 

Choosing a therapist is undoubtedly a vital piece of the puzzle that is our mental health. Augusten Burroughs once said, “Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don’t go there alone.” This statement made me giggle when I first read it, but then I realized it is pretty accurate.

Who you take with you to the dangerous neighborhood is equally as crucial as not going there alone! Take someone with the proper skill set, someone you can trust, and someone who prioritizes your best interests, and you will be alright.

Did you ask your therapist a specific question that you found helpful when deciding to seek therapy? Is there a trait or characteristic that you search for when choosing a therapist? Share your thoughts and anything that helped you choose a therapist in the comments below! Have a story about choosing the WRONG therapist? Leave that here too!

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