How to Find the Right Counselor or Therapist

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How to Find the Right Counselor or Therapist

So you’ve decided you could probably benefit from talking to a counselor or therapist. Congratulations! That’s a brave first step. But that’s when things may start to feel overwhelming for you. Before you even set foot into a psychotherapist’s office and begin to tackle the issues you’ve been struggling with, you first have to find one! And oh, are there plenty of options available out there for you. There are countless therapists and counselors who would love and appreciate helping you out, but how do you connect to any of these providers when a simple Google search leaves you completely overwhelmed?

First things first, take a deep breath. Really, now. I’m waiting…

Feel a little bit better? Okay, great. Now, here’s a comprehensive guide, in no particular order, for how you can find the right therapist or counselor for you.

1. Check Directories:

There are many therapist directories out there, the most prominent of which is Psychology Today. Another large directory is GoodTherapy. There are countless other smaller and/or more local directories, too many to name, but they’re worth checking out. Make sure you check out the specific policies/values of each therapy directory so that they are in line with your beliefs. Keep in mind that therapists pay to be listed on these directories, so not every therapist or counselor in your area will be listed in a particular directory. Another important thing to understand is that most of these directories rotate the order of the therapist profiles based on the ZIP code you enter, so you will most likely see different providers on the first page of your search depending on each specific ZIP code.

2. Contact Therapists Through Thumbtack:

Thumbtack is a service website in the style of Angie’s List, where you can fill out a short questionnaire about yourself and the specific service you’d like (such as hiring a counselor in your area). Your service-related information is emailed to counselors or therapists listed on Thumbtack in your area, and the providers can then pay to message you if they feel that they are a good fit for you therapeutically. Once again, not every psychotherapist in your area is guaranteed to use this service, so they will not all be listed here.

3. Visit Yelp:

Ah, Yelp. We love it for checking out whether that new restaurant that opened down the street is any good, but it can also be helpful for checking out a potential psychotherapist. With that being said, however, due to the tricky and confidential nature of counseling and therapy, reviews may be very limited or nonexistent for a particular provider. Stigma is still alive and well for people seeking help from counselors and therapists, so many people don’t yet feel comfortable putting themselves out there as a consumer of mental health services. Don’t get discouraged if a provider you may be interested in has no reviews on Yelp (or isn’t even on it in the first place).

4. Agency vs. Private Practice:

It’s helpful to know the difference between the services you can expect to get from a community agency versus a private practice when you’re looking into counselors. With a community agency, a broad range of services is usually available, from counseling to psychological assessments to medication management, with a financial emphasis on free or reduced-cost services or insurance coverage. On the other hand, a private practice is usually relatively limited in the services provided/populations served/specialties addressed, but there is a quality of intimacy in this venue that’s usually not as possible as within a community agency; as far as finances are concerned, private practices can run the gamut from private-pay to in-network and out-of-network for insurance, all depending on the practice.

5. Look For Discounts:

If you plan on paying out-of-pocket for convenience or don’t want to use your insurance for confidentiality reasons, check websites of potential providers (or go the old-fashioned route and call) for any mention of a financial discount. Many community agencies and private practices have a sliding-scale system, in which reduced fees for counseling or therapy can be negotiated based on your proof of income. Typically in these cases, there are only a few delegated slots for sliding-scale available at any time, so keep this in mind. If you aren’t comfortable with a sliding-scale policy, there may be other options available. Some private practices may honor discounts for students, employees, or the military. It never hurts to ask!

6. Take Advantage Of Free Consultations:

If you’ve centered in on a couple of counselors you may want to begin working with, ask each of them whether they offer a free consultation. A consultation is a great risk-free (and cost-free!) way to start talking with a therapist of your choosing to find out about the way she works regarding therapeutic orientation, specialties, session structure, fees, intake information, and most importantly, whether you feel comfortable, open, and safe enough with this person to be able to share your story. Consultations are usually anywhere between 15-30 minutes long, can be held over the phone or in-person depending, and are typically free to give potential clients a chance to “try it out”. Consultations are in place to prevent one of the worst things that can happen in counseling: deciding on a counselor, meeting them, paying for your first session, sharing your story, then realizing that there’s no therapeutic “fit” or match between you and your counselor.

7. Look Into A Therapist’s Specialties:

So you may have settled on a therapist or two. In that case, you want to make sure they’re adept at dealing with what you’re going through. Put another way: do they have experience or knowledge about the particular issue(s) you’re ready to tackle? Most therapists will make some mention in their websites of their particular specialties or populations. Remember, you’re in essence hiring this therapist, so you want to make sure you’re making an informed choice about how well you’d work together.

8. Therapeutic Approach:

Somewhat related to the previous few bullet points, you want to check out counselors’ therapeutic approaches to see what makes the most sense and aligns with your worldview. How do you see the world? How do you relate to it: feeling, thinking, behaving, or a mixture? Some counselors are proficient in a certain technique or therapeutic modality (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a big one). Some approaches are more structured and even give homework, while others are more flexible. Some approaches place the highest importance not on a specific technique, but on the therapeutic relationship itself. If you’re worried that you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, relax – it’s not a big deal. The counselor of your choosing can break these things down with you so you can get a better sense of what would work best for you.

9. Online vs. In-Person:

The traditional arena of psychotherapy is finally joining the 21st century, with online/telehealth services growing in popularity. As with any of these characteristics, this is a personal decision for you to make. If you live in a sparsely populated or rural area and otherwise don’t have access to mental health services, online counseling may be a great fit for you. Keep in mind, as online psychotherapy continues to grow, standards of practice will become regulated, but at the moment, I’d advise you to do some thorough research and use caution if you’re interested in the option of online counseling. In-person psychotherapy, conducted face-to-face, may be a wise option for you if you’re growing tired of or feeling distanced by technology and are eager to make a real and genuine connection with another person.

10. Therapist vs. Life Coach:

Recently, life coaches have exploded in popularity in the wellness scene, offering services that seem similar to therapy or counseling. There are differences between therapists and life coaches, however. Therapists, counselors, and psychotherapists go through rigorous education, training, licensing, and certification to be able to responsibly help people struggling with life’s challenges. In broad terms, life coaches aim to help people maximize the good in their lives, but the field of life coaching has yet to come forth with a specific standard of practice; there are many different training programs available, but quite a few of them don’t require very much in order to become certified. It has been said that counselors can do everything coaches can do, and more. Whatever you choose, make sure that you’ve done your research.

11. Verify Credentials:

This is a very important one. As I stated earlier, counselors and therapists have very strict legal and ethical standards of practice. The psychotherapists you’re looking into should list their credentials, (ideally) explain them, and link to websites where you can verify each of these credentials. You should be able to check that licenses are up to date and whether any disciplinary action has been taken toward them.

12. Insurance:

If you’d like to use your insurance to pay for your therapy, look into whether the counselors or therapists you are interested in take your insurance as an in-network provider. If they do, great! If they don’t, that’s not the end of the story – there are plenty of other options. Perhaps they’re an out-of-network provider; if so, check with them and your insurance company, just to be safe. You might need to ask for a Superbill so that you can submit this information to your insurance company in order for it to be covered. On a related note, you may also be able to use your health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA) to pay for sessions, in which case you will probably need to keep your receipts so that you can submit them to your insurance company. If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of insurance, look into psychotherapists that can take private-pay clients.

13. Prepare Questions:

During a consultation, you’ll have the opportunity to ask your potential psychotherapist questions. Don’t turn down this opportunity! Come prepared with questions you’d like answered so that you can get the most out of this free information-gathering session.

14. Get A Referral:

When examining who to begin a therapeutic relationship with, take advantage of referrals if you can. Ask friends or family members if they can recommend anyone. You can also ask your other health care practitioners (like your doctor) if they have any psychotherapists in mind who may be able to meet your needs. If you have insurance and would like to use it, check out what therapists are paneled with your insurance. Of course, don’t feel that you have to take anyone up on their referral; use your own judgment, and if you don’t think it’s the right fit, search elsewhere. Regardless, it’s a great place to start if you need one.

15. Meet More Than One:

When evaluating possible counselors or therapists, don’t just schedule a free consultation with the first one who catches your interest and call it a day. Try to schedule with at least two or three psychotherapists so you can get a feel of what they bring to the table and what you’d prefer. What’s there to lose? Nothing. What’s there to gain? Potentially, a lot.

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and find yourself a counselor!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons – Jefferyrauschert

– Kristen Martinez, M.Ed., Ed.S., LMHCA, NCC Therapist in Seattle


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