Whether you have mental illness or just need someone to talk to, therapy is a great solution with endless health benefits. That said, it can be a really stressful, anxiety-inducing process to try and find the right person and therapy type for you and your needs, especially if it’s your first time searching for a therapist. It’s really important to make sure that your therapist is someone you feel comfortable with; if not, your treatment might not be as impactful and beneficial. You don’t want to add to any mental health strains, so we’re here to help you avoid any of the potential obstacles in the therapist search!
1. Consider what kind of therapy and therapist you want
There are many different factors to be considered when you’re determining what kind of therapy you need and want. A few questions to keep in mind might be: how often do you want to go? What specialty would you like your therapist to have? Do you prefer any sort of method of therapy? Suzy Johnson*, junior at UC Davis, says, “Something that made a huge difference was understanding the type of psychologist that was right for me,” because she was not well versed in the vast world of therapy.
Two particularly popular types of therapy, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy. CBT combines two schools of thought (cognitive and behavioral therapy, respectively) into a comprehensive practice that addresses personal thoughts and beliefs as well as explicit actions. This therapy can be used to address depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and eating disorders.
Psychodynamic therapy is a more traditional form of therapy that has its roots in psychoanalytic therapy, though contemporary therapists don't rely on this methodology anymore. The focus here is on subconscious feelings and how these affect one's actions. This kind of therapy is often used in combination with other types.
Many different kinds of therapies exist, a detailed list of which you can find on the National Institute of Mental Health’s website. Making sure you practice the one that can be most effective for you is vital. Becoming familiar with different types only increases your chances of finding what’s right for you, and, therefore, improving your mental health! This might require some trial and error, and “most people won’t find the right therapist for them after the first time,” in Suzy’s experience.
It might be important for you to consider the gender of your therapist. Dr. Carole Lieberman M.D., psychiatrist and author, says, “For example, if a woman has had an abusive father, she might not feel comfortable with a male therapist.” There are a lot of reasons that gender might impact the success of your therapy, and if you think this might be the case, you might want to narrow your search. Dr. Roy Stefanik D.O., a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, says, “if you feel you would be much more comfortable with one particular gender or another, start there.” Trust your instincts when it comes to searching for a therapist, as these should guide you in the right direction!
Additionally, if you identify as LGBTQ+, you might want to take care to ensure that your therapist is friendly to your identity, or that they have special experience and knowledge in these areas. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association has an online directory of inclusive therapists, and it is also probably a good idea to check when you make an appointment or have an initial consultation with a therapist that your identity will be respected and considered.
2. Start with your school’s resources
If you don’t have any idea how to begin the search for a therapist, your college’s health center should have a mental health office that can be helpful to you. Check their website, walk in or make an appointment to ask for a referral or to see if their therapists and psychiatrists can suit your needs. As a part of your enrollment at the school, it might even be the case that there are a number of free counseling sessions you have access to, right on campus!
Tori, a senior at DePaul University, found her therapist at the school’s counseling center. After taking advantage of the free counseling sessions, her counselor was able to refer her to another therapist, off campus. “It was nice to have that counselor to launch off from,” Tori says. “He knew me and had met with me and recommended people based on my needs and what he thought was best.” Going through the counseling center will really ease your stress in the therapy search because they are more aware of methods as well as more familiar with you and your needs.
3. Check websites for reviews
Psychology Today has listings for thousands of licensed medical professionals who others have reviewed. This site is useful because it allows you to look for a therapist you know by name or practice, as well as search just by your location if you are starting from scratch. Dr. Stefanik says, “Reviews can be very difficult to interpret—people are much more likely to write a bad review if they've had a bad experience than a good review for a positive one.” He suggests looking for patterns in the reviews that paint a more holistic figure of the therapist you’re researching. Doctor reviews can be very helpful in steering you in the right direction, but take them with a grain of salt.
You should also be aware of whether or not the therapist you are interested in has been the subject of any malpractice lawsuits. If this bothers you, you might not want to see this therapist. The state medical board keeps track of this information, so if you check the website for the state in which you are looking for a therapist, you will find listings of those individuals who have been involved in such cases.
It’s also good to check the therapist’s or practice’s own website to get a feel for their methodology and overall approach. There you will probably find doctor bios and backgrounds on the type of care they offer. Dr. Stefanik also says to keep in mind whether the description written for the therapist is “sincere or thoughtful.” How the therapist chooses to represent themselves online can be a good tell of their in-person conduct!
4. Prepare for your first appointment
Avoid any anxiety about what your first appointment may or may not hold by getting extra prepared. Take stock of how you are feeling the night before your appointment and how you expect to feel after. Why not make a list of goals or things you are looking to get out of your therapy? Dr. Stefanik suggests that individuals “write some notes beforehand and bring them to the session with you if you're concerned you might forget to discuss something you feel is important.” You should also remember to make a list of any medications you take, so that whoever you’re seeing is fully aware of your situation.
Dr. Lieberman adds that you should focus on the most important issues you’d like to discuss with a therapist, in order to give them an idea of what they are going to be working on with you. She says that a therapist should be able to help you with issues big and small, but it might be easier to get the big goals out on the table just for the sake of mental organization!
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests asking your therapist several questions at the time of your first appointment, including those about their specific methodoligies as well as their credentials. How long have they been practicing psychology for? What are their specific focuses? Do they have any specific experience with issues such as your own?
Don't forget to inquire about their prices and the types of insurance they accept. "Many insurance companies provide coverage for mental health services," according to the APA. Whether it be through your parents or your own employer, it is best to check on these logistics before starting therapy to make sure it is financially feasible, or if you might have a restriction on exactly how much therapy you can partake in.
5. Evaluate your progress
Checking in with yourself at different stages in your therapy is imperative to make sure you are receiving the best possible care. You might not feel like your problems are entirely solved after your first few sessions or weeks of therapy, but you should have a handle on whether or not the therapist if for you. At this point, it makes sense to ask yourself if your visits have been helpful and if you feel like you have made progress or are feeling better.
Even if progress is not the case, Dr. Lieberman says therapy is “not about making you happy every session.” Dealing with personal, deep-rooted issues is likely going to cause some serious frustration, but you should feel like it's getting you somewhere and helping you confront and deal with your obstacles. She recommends that, after your first couple of sessions with a therapist, ask yourself a simple question: “Does this therapist seem to get me?” Just be honest with yourself, as that is the only way you can hope to get anywhere with your therapy.
Nathalie, a junior at SUNY Old Westbury, says that looking for a connection with her therapist was crucial in her process, and later with regard to the effectiveness of her actual therapy. “If the connection is not there, there is no point in staying because I won't feel comfortable with the therapist,” Nathalie says. The comfort factor is super important; if you do not feel okay with your therapist, it’s going to be difficult or impossible to talk to them and discuss your obstacles and fix what you’re interested in fixing. “I need to be able to talk to that therapist effortlessly,” Nathalie also adds—a very good rule of thumb!
“Therapy is healthy and normal and I genuinely think that everybody can benefit from therapy, even if they’re neurotypical,” says Suzy. Therapy is tied up in social stigma that prevents people from getting the help that they need, whether or not they have a mental condition of some kind. It is certainly not the case that you need to have a diagnosed mental illness to be receiving therapy. Therapy is just like working out and getting enough sleep—a necessary way to take care of one’s body! We all go through difficult times and face extraordinary obstacles, and sometimes we cannot work through these without the help of others. Therapy is a great option, and if you are willing to put in the effort, it can only help you!
*Names have been changed