Stress that keeps you up at night. Arguing more than usual with your partner. Past traumas that you can’t resolve on your own. No matter your reason, deciding to start therapy is a big first step to feeling better.
In fact, about 75% of people who go to therapy benefit from the experience, says the American Psychiatric Association. It can help you function better, improve your mood, feel more satisfaction in the everyday and even avoid sick days and related medical problems.
But a critical part of successful therapy boils down to choosing the right therapist.
There are many reasons people choose one therapist over another. It could be a referral from their doctor and convenient office hours or location. It could also be based on whom their insurance will cover. (If you’re struggling with prices at the pharmacy, we can help. Download our app to see how much you could save on your prescriptions.)
But it’s important to consider more than just factors of convenience. You should also look at the therapist’s style and whether he or she is skilled in the areas you want to address. A study in JAMA Psychiatry found that when people were matched with therapists who had experience treating their specific concern, the patients had better treatment results.
Other important factors: working with a therapist who embodies your values, uses the type of treatment you prefer and comes across as credible, says Michael Constantino, PhD. He’s a professor and graduate program director in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
But how do you find “the one” when it comes to therapy? That often comes down to doing a little bit of homework, keeping an open mind and being honest about what you want out of therapy.
Here’s how to get started.
Figure out your needs
You don’t have to have all the answers before you start looking for a therapist. But it helps to have an idea of what you want. For example, are you more comfortable with the idea of meeting with someone 1-on-1? Or do you like the idea of sharing common experiences with people in a group setting?
Also consider what issues you most want to work through in therapy and what results you hope to achieve. You should also read up on some of the most common forms of therapy, including psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy. Check our guide to therapy here.
Ask for a referral
Once you have an idea of what you want to get out of therapy and the style that appeals to you most, start making a list of names. “See if there’s a therapist who delivers a treatment that makes sense to you or that you have researched and want to try,” Constantino says.
Not sure where to start? These resources can help narrow down the field:
Your primary care physician
Many doctors should be able to give you the names of respected, reputable therapists in your area. Ask for therapists who specialize in the issues you want to work on. For example, maybe you need a therapist who works with cancer survivors or one who focuses on family problems.
A friend or family member
You can often get good recommendations from people who share your values and personality traits.
Several organizations offer online tools where you can search for therapists by location, specialty, insurance and treatment style. The American Psychology Association is one of them. Psychology Today also keeps an active directory.
If you need low-cost mental health services, search the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration.
Looking for a therapist who can meet you virtually? See if Care from Optum Store is right for you. You can try out therapists until you find one you love. And there’s a flat monthly fee, so you won’t get any surprise bills.
Do your homework
Once you have a list of names, do some research. Read the therapists’ bios and information on the services and therapies they provide. Check into practical questions such as whether the therapist is included in your insurance network and has office hours that will work with your schedule.
Many therapists also offer a free consultation. Or they may be reachable by phone or email to ask screening questions.
“I recommend starting a dialogue to find out whether they can help you in the way you want or specialize in the problems you want to address,” says Karen Surowiec, PsyD. She’s a psychologist with the Manhattan Psychology Group in New York City.
The American Psychological Association suggests asking a potential therapist questions such as:
- What license do you hold?
- How many years have you been practicing?
- What experience do you have helping people with my specific problems?
- What kinds of treatments do you use? And have they been proven effective for my particular issue?
- How much does it cost? Do you have a sliding-scale fee policy?
- What types of insurance do you accept? Do you accept Medicare or Medicaid insurance?
A good therapist will help you feel safe, respected and heard. But you also want a therapist who will challenge you, Surowiec says. By its nature, therapy often involves talking about and processing difficult experiences and feelings.
“The therapy process can really stir up strong emotions in order to evoke change,” she says.
A therapist can answer any questions you have, provide reassurance and keep your preferred pace of progress in mind, Surowiec says. Typically you can tell if you’ve found the right therapist after a few sessions. But you don’t always need to bail at the first sign of a bump in the road. In fact, sometimes working through a mild rough patch in a therapeutic relationship can be helpful, Constantino says.
On the flip side, if you don’t see yourself developing a good relationship with your therapist, or if you can’t repair a trust issue, be honest and move on, he says.
“Having a therapist who is in line with your goals, values and learning objectives can make a big difference,” Surowiec says.
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How therapy can help you: American Psychiatric Association
Why choosing the right therapist for your needs is beneficial: JAMA Psychiatry (2021). “Effect of Matching Therapists to Patients vs Assignment as Usual on Adult Psychotherapy Outcomes: A Randomized Clinical Trial”
Questions to ask your therapist: American Psychological Association