A Primer on Finding a Good Therapist

Multiple readers have asked about the best way to find a therapist, as well as what to look for in a potential therapist. Because of individual factors such as finances, insurance and geography, I recommend using PsychologyToday.com as a first resource for locating potential therapists in the United States and Canada*. I keep a profile there myself and it’s a great way to find a large number of practitioners close to your home, school or job. Each provider’s profile gives you both phone and email addresses should you wish to contact him or her and shows both the provider’s degree and style of practice.

The site also explains what all of the different degrees and therapeutic approaches mean so that you are well-informed on what to expect from a particular therapist. Some of the practitioners even put their photos up so you see how “shrinky” they look. Given that I rarely smile and have never taken a decent picture in my life, I decided to forgo that option.

Any therapist who is worthwhile should be willing to spend at least 10-15 minutes on the phone with you to find out what you are struggling with and to answer any questions you may have. You can learn a lot during this short conversation. Remember, the best, albeit imperfect, indicator of how successful therapy will be is what is known as the “therapeutic alliance.” Essentially, this is how well you connect with your therapist. Does he seem interested in what you have to say? Does she genuinely seem to care about your well-being? Is she easy to talk with? Will he answer appropriate questions without becoming guarded or defensive?

These are important questions that you should consider. Potential clients often get bogged down with less important details, such as type of degree or years of experience. In fact, research suggests that new therapists perform just as well as seasoned clinicians. While I wouldn’t recommend seeing a therapist who has literally no experience with a complex case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder if that is your difficulty, clinicians with some basic experience within a particular area can be fantastic therapists. It is more important that she makes you feel safe and comfortable and she can engage you in open dialogue.
My therapist has a Master’s Degree, and at first blush would appear to be less qualified than me to treat…well, me, simply because I have a Doctorate. However, the (unfortunate) reality is that not only is she a better therapist than I could ever hope to be, but that I also secretly hate her for it.

Bear in mind that there is no such thing as an across-the-board great therapist. Those who are good adapt their therapeutic style to meet the needs of their clients, but it is impossible to be what everyone is looking for all the time. Thus, you should ideally find a therapist whose general personality meets your needs. If you want help with assertiveness and think you would benefit from someone getting in your face and telling you like it is, a la Dr. Phil, then someone with Dr. John’s style would be appropriate. By contrast, someone like Dr. Allison, while perhaps not the best clinician for Schizophrenia or any conditions that involve medication, is actually fantastic when working with trauma sufferers. She and others like her have a highly refined empathic style that works very well with people who thrive with a softer, gentler approach.

A caveat: most mental health providers are good-natured people, but not all. While therapy is, generally speaking, not the path toward financial independence there are some practitioners who are mainly interested in charging you as much as possible. Therapy is a business but an ethical therapist is a practitioner first and an entrepreneur second. There is no shame in financial success, but some therapists will exploit clients to achieve this. These are the true dregs of the field. Some clues to pick out sleaze of this nature include excessive fees (e.g., $350 per session and up), “guaranteed” success (there is no way to predict with perfect accuracy if a client will have a successful therapeutic experience), promoting the idea that he or she is “the best” (again, no one is a perfect therapeutic match for everyone), etc. Many of these providers will use their extensive experience, lavish office, or multiple credentials sexing up the walls as a justification of their very high fees. Remember that experience doesn’t translate to greater therapy success and you don’t always get what you pay for in mental health.

* Other than my profile on their site (which I pay for), I have no financial relationship with PsychologyToday.Com. Not that I don’t want to; I’m more than happy to take their money.

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2 Responses to “A Primer on Finding a Good Therapist”

  1. Silvyr says:

    If, after meeting a new therapist for a little while (I personally recommend 4-5 weeks/sessions) you feel it isn’t working and you don’t “click” with your therapist – SPEAK UP! Good therapists recognize that they just aren’t cut out to help everyone and every problem, so most are willing to work with you to get what you want and/or help you find another therapist they think is better suited to your wants & needs. (If they aren’t, just stop seeing them and find another one yourself – FAST).
    And don’t get discouraged if it takes you a little while to find a good therapist. It’s okay to be picky when finding someone to help you sort out your life problems, and it’s definitely worth taking the time and trying to find someone you are comfortable and confident with rather than trying to force a relationship and recovery with someone who just isn’t able to help you.

  2. Charity says:

    As a survivor of multiple abuses and having PTSD, I’ve spent a lot of time with therapists. I personally like therapists that are involved with local charitable programs like the United Way. Our local community has a free therapy program for survivors of trauma and abuse. I work throughout the year to find donations for them (last year I was able to anonymously donate $250 to their program from winning a contest with an essay I wrote about my abuse – not much but every little bit helps) and get the word out about their programs. They provide a lot of services for trauma victims so some programs may be specialized but I tend to find a good quality of services in those kinds of programs. The therapists I’ve dealt with are varied but quality and very interested in helping. Not every area may have them but it’s a good idea to look for them. Of course, this type of therapy may require a bit more active participation and motivation because these programs can be regulated due to the grants they receive. Be prepared to ‘qualify’ based on your current symptoms or past experiences.