How To Find The Right Kind Of Therapist For You

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With more and more people joining the fields of counseling and therapy today, it can be challenging to know how to find a therapist who is best suited to meet your particular needs.

The growing variety of therapy types, methodologies and treatment approaches can also be confusing for those who don't work in the mental health field and aren't familiar with therapeutic interventions.

In order to identify the best therapist to fit your needs you must first identify, specifically, what your needs are. That may seem like a no brainer, but it requires internal reflection and a thoughtful approach.

I can’t tell you how many times I've met with someone who sought therapy for one thing, only to realize that wasn’t really the issue requiring therapy, but rather a symptom of a larger issue in need of being addressed.

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Try to determine if your concerns are based upon personal issues, issues in your relationship, or family challenges that may be spilling over into your personal life, etc.

How to Find the Right Therapist For You

1. Ask someone you trust for suggestions.

Perhaps you know someone who saw a therapist and had a positive experience. Ask for their therapist's name and begin compiling a list. You can also conduct an online therapist search or ask your primary physician for some recommendations.

2. Do a little online research before scheduling an appointment.

Your goal is to obtain background about the therapist to see if the treatment they offer aligns with your goals. For example, does the therapist provide talk therapy or specialize in resolving the specific issues you are struggling with?

3. Determine if you have a gender preference.

If so, that's perfectly OK. Use this knowledge of yourself to further narrow your search.

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4. Narrow your search by the type of health insurance they accept.

There is nothing worse than finding your “ideal therapist” only to learn they don't accept your health insurance provider. Therapy can be expensive and unfortunately, many people cannot afford to pay the full amount out-of-pocket. If cost is an issue, make sure the therapist you select accepts your insurance. Or contact your insurance company for a list of mental health professionals who do accept their plans.

5. Identify a small list of therapists who appear to fit your needs.

Go through the list of therapists you've identified and read their bios. Take into consideration things like the length of time they've been in practice and the type of services they provide, then whittle down your list to your top three favorite choices.

6. Consider the therapist's theoretical orientation.

As a mental health professional, I know I speak for many of us when I tell you we do not expect our clients to be well versed in the wide variety of therapeutic orientations that exist.

However, it's helpful if you have an idea of whether you are interested in working on your behavior, adjusting your thinking processes, focusing on the here and now, resolving issues from your past, addressing self-esteem issues, learning how to manage your anger, finding coping mechanisms for times when you struggle with sadness, resolving family issues, and so on.

Getting a sense of the kind of change you'd like to achieve is a good place to start.

7. Reach out to prospective therapists via telephone.

This sounds a lot simpler than it actually may be, because reaching out to a complete stranger for help can be difficult for many people.

It will help if you have a few questions prepared that you would like the therapist to answer about things that are important to you.

If you still have no idea at all about which therapeutic orientation or approach you might find most effective, this is the time to ask about them about it directly. Once the therapist provides you with their orientation, ask them to explain it to you without using clinical terms, and see if what they say resonates with your personality and your goals.

If you like what you hear based upon your conversation with the therapist, schedule your first appointment.

It's also important to understand that there are a number of educational backgrounds informing various therapists and their practice in the field of mental health, including but not limited to MSWs, MHCs, MFTs, LPCs, PsyDs, PhDs, MDs, and all the other professional designations that fall in between.

Although the kinds of therapists listed above all provide mental health services, not all utilize the same approach, work with the same population, prescribe medication, focus their approach more heavily on research than talk therapy, etc.

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The differences between the most common and broad categories of titles for mental health professionals can be broken down as follows:

  • Psychiatrists: These are medical doctors (MDs) who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental or psychiatric illnesses. They have medical training and are licensed to prescribe drugs.
  • Psychologists: These are doctors with either a PhD or PsyD who are considered experts in psychology. PhD’s tend to focus on research, while PsyDs tend to focus on clinical practice. Both study the human mind and human behavior, and are also trained in counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing, but they cannot prescribe medicine.
  • MSWs/LCSWs: These are therapists with a graduate degree in social work, either an MSW or PhD. Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are qualified to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
  • MHCs: These are people who possess a graduate degree in mental health counseling. A mental health counselor (MHC), or counselor, is a person who uses psychotherapeutic methods to help others.
  • MFTs/LMFTs: These therapists have a graduate degree in marriage & family therapy. (MFTs) are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, who may be licensed (LMFTs) to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems.
  • LPCs: These individuals have a graduate degree in counseling, often used interchangeably with MHC’s, Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) are mental health professionals who work to help people resolve their psychological, emotional, and substance abuse problems.

No matter what type of therapist you decide upon, make sure you therapist’s skillset, experience, training, and approach all match your needs.

You want to feel comfortable and safe sharing your concerns with your therapist.

Don't settle until you find a qualified professional who communicates well in a language you easily understand, listen more than they speak, refrains from judgment, and both understands and effectively addresses your goals for treatment.

RELATED: Why It's So Important To Find A Therapist Who Understands You & Your Unique Identity

Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who focuses on relationships, dating, and personality issues, as well as a Certified Relationship Specialist with Diplomate Status, and an expert with the American Psychotherapy Association.