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  • Writer's picturePam

ISO the "right" therapist: 5 easy tips

So you made the decision to start working with a counselor. The search begins! Wait, hold on minute. Finding the right therapist isn’t complicated, but it takes some thoughtful planning. Here are 5 easy tips to get you started, so you can find just the right therapist.

January is a time for planning!

Before you go any further, pause to ask yourself: what is the most pressing reason that now is the time for me to start counseling? What is the first thing that comes to mind? You might have a whole list of reasons. Or the main reason might be vague; something like, “Lately (or for quite some time), I just don’t feel right (insert your personal version of: sad, lonely, overwhelmed, worried, stressed, etc.), and I want to feel better.”

The best time to seek therapy is often during or after any major life transition: empty nest, diagnosis of serious illness such as cancer (for you for a close family member), divorce, caregiving for elderly parents, death of loved one (human or companion animal), a close friend experiencing mental illness or substance use disorder, and/or relationship difficulties. Even a change in job status can cause emotional upheaval and lead to questioning your life path, such as if you were fired or laid off, or are facing a promotion, demotion, or retirement.

Be sure you are ready to commit to weekly sessions, or at least biweekly, in order to address your goals effectively. Too much time between sessions can lead to longer overall treatment time, because the strategic focus on goals and learning skills can can get lost.

No matter what reasons you come up with, you definitely want to start with some ideas about your current situation and where you’d like to experience improvements. This information will help you narrow down the field of options, once you have a few therapists in mind. You will want to be sure that any therapists you consider are trained and experienced in issues similar to yours. This does not necessarily rule out a “general individual and family therapist,” who essentially agrees to see any client who calls.

A wise consumer will demand a clinician who can provide assistance within a specific area of expertise and, ideally, in a short amount of time. If you are clear about your top two or three issues and what resolution would look like, your therapist’s main job is to help you build upon the steps to reach that goal.

Most folks start with their health insurance website or toll-free phone number, then choose from the provided list. MISTAKE. I have done this myself and the person is rarely a good fit. Why? Because I didn’t bother interviewing the therapist to see if they are right for ME, my life stage, and my specific issues.

Back in the day, I just went with whatever health care clinician was most convenient. Remember the days of thumbing through the Yellow Pages? That was like throwing a dart at a target while wearing a blindfold! There was no easy way to screen our health care providers back then, so all I did was find any provider who accepted my health insurance - to give me the illusion that the care was being (partially) paid for. (Stay tuned: insurance will be another blog topic!)

Just good advice: Take off the blindfold before you throw darts.

No need to find an ancient copy of the Yellow Pages or to throw darts while wearing a blindfold. Here are five easy steps to take in order to find a therapist to fit your unique needs:

1. Collect names:

Complete a web search using keywords such as “mental health” or “counseling,” plus your town or county. If you feel comfortable, ask your friends, coworkers, and family members if they have heard about any reputable local therapists. Create one list of at least ten local options. Do NOT rule out any therapist based on the single factor of whether or not they accept your insurance plan. Sometimes using an out of network provider is actually less expensive in the long run, because they might have the expertise you need to address your issues in fewer visits. Finally, to round out your list, use your zip code to run a quick check for any in-network therapists listed on your insurance company’s website.

2. Do some research:

Narrow down your list by doing deeper research on each therapist on your list. Check out their websites, social media, and Psychology Today profiles. Cross out anyone on your list who does not mention your primary issue in any of their online material. When it comes to mental health, a specialist is always preferable. If you find a therapist’s website that speaks directly to the issues you are facing, this therapist will move to the very top of your list.

It is imperative that you choose a specialist that has experience and training in your specific issues. A specialist with advanced skills, even with fees slightly higher than a general therapist, can ultimately save you time and money by addressing the details of your situation in a more focused manner, leading to shorter treatment time. Hopefully you will find at least a few therapists, within a reasonable driving distance, who have some experience with your primary issue.

3. Make the calls:

Now you should have your list narrowed down to the top three or four prospective therapists. The next step is to call each of them to gather the final bits of information you will need. Before you call, create a list of questions to ask so you are prepared. Have a notepad with you to take notes during each call.

The very first and most important questions you will ask are related to their experience with your specific issues. Instead of merely asking, “Have you ever worked with someone with my specific issue?,” use questions which allow space for more detailed answers.


“How many clients with issues similar to mine have you worked with in the past year?” “What types of treatment interventions were used?”

“Do you have any special trainings or a background that makes you more qualified to treat my issue than other therapists?”

Be sure to find out WHEN the therapist completed their specialized training. Mental health research has made tremendous strides, with huge shifts in theory and approach, in recent years. This is most evident as we learn more about brain function. A therapist with “years of experience” is only impressive if they have received comprehensive, updated education in the past few years.

4. Personality match:

During the phone call, you will get a good feel for the therapist’s communication style, and start to notice basic traits including: are they a good listener, do they have a direct approach, do they display empathy when you mention the reason you seek counseling? These elements will give you a feel for the clinician’s personality, because the therapeutic relationship is key to successful therapy. Even if the match is not perfect, this process will give you a solid feel for each therapist’s style and you will start to form an opinion about what it would be like to work with this person over the next few months.

To wrap up the call, ask any final questions you were not able to find online. This is the opportunity to ask about the practical details, such as what to expect during the first session, payment methods, and required intake paperwork. Ask about the location of treatment and if the therapist offers any alternatives, such as telehealth (online video format), home visits, outdoor walk-and-talk therapy, or group therapy. Even if you prefer to start with a traditional office setting, it’s nice to have options in case of weather events or illness, etc.

5. Make the appointment:

After you interview your top two or three choices, look through the notes you made about each therapist. The number one choice should be the person who meets the two most important criteria: a highly qualified specialist and the one you felt most comfortable chatting with during the call. Follow your “gut instinct” on this. It’s okay to choose the therapist you “liked” the most, because you already did the research to rule out anyone who would not be a match. Go ahead and call to make that appointment NOW!

See how easy that was? If you would like a free copy of my conveniently formatted checklist “Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Therapist” before you start making your calls, just send me an email. I’m glad to help you get started!

Next time I’ll talk about what to expect at the first visit and how to know for sure if you found the “right therapist.” Until then, good luck and congrats on making the brave decision to seek mental health support. If you read to the end of this blog, I know you are serious about your health. You get a gold star for self-care today.

Gold star for self-care! (Do teachers give out stickers anymore?)


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