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Everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist, but finding a mental health professional can feel overwhelming: Every therapist has their own style, specialty, and yes, price. Here's what you should know before you try to find a therapist.
Start the search.
You have a few options for first steps. Your insurance company can provide a list of in-network practitioners or you can solicit recommendations from friends or family, says Rachel Kazez, L.C.S.W., a Chicago-based therapist and founder of All Along, a consulting firm that helps pair people with therapists and other mental help. Even though referrals may seem like the smartest option, Kazez adds that some therapists may prefer to keep clients unaffiliated to avoid conflicts of interest or having to keep track of who said what.
If you're totally overwhelmed and need to offload the search, it might be worth hiring the services of a firm like All Along, which provides a phone consultation and then takes care of the search for you.
The cheapest and most surefire avenue to find your own professional: Turn to a reliable, national database like GoodTherapy.com or PsychologyToday.com. It's a little more work than word-of-mouth recommendations, but both sites vet the credentials and licensing of the therapists they list and let you filter by things like insurance provider, issues you're dealing with, or gender of the practitioner.
For starters, skip the life coach. They probably aren't any cheaper and they aren't licensed medical professionals, Kazez points out. And you want a psychologist, not a psychiatrist (the latter, who has an M.D., usually only provides medication and not actual therapy).
Look for someone with a Ph.D. (which is a clinical or counseling psychology doctorate), L.C.S.W. (fully licensed social worker, also called an L.M.S.W. or L.I.S.W. in some states), or L.C.P.C. (fully licensed counselor). Among these three, there's not a huge difference in treatment, Kazez says.
Narrow it down.
If you're using a database, trying to find *your* therapist among every practitioner in your zip code is a guaranteed anxiety-bomb. Start filtering with what you know: your insurance provider, your age group, your issues at hand (options include everything from the very specific "trauma" and "OCD" to more general categories like "life transitions" and "relationship issues"). Then, consider what you'd prefer in someone—a certain faith or a certain nationality, for example.
If you don't have a preference or any insight into what exactly you're grappling with, don't stress it. "Anyone who is well-trained should be able to handle the gamut from mild life stressors all the way up to psychiatric issues that require hospitalization," says Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. "The most important thing is building a trusting, supportive, therapeutic relationship."
Read their bios if on a database, or their website if referred, which will give you a sense of their personality and therapy style. Consider the type of relationship you want—directive, independent, humorous, serious, nurturing—and see if their description aligns, Kazez says.
Set up intros.
Trust your gut and start shooting off requests for introductory calls. "Search criteria helps but there is still no substitute for the real experience of being face-to-face with someone in a room together," says Michaelis.
It's just like dating, really: There are plenty of therapists who look great on paper but when you meet, the dynamic just isn't right—and some who at first glance seem like they won't fit, but end up being a great match, he adds.
Most therapists will ask to do a 10-minute call before setting up an appointment, or an introductory in-person, either of which are intended to see if you're a fit for one another. This step is crucial for both of you. "As in all relationships, the therapeutic relationship is founded on trust and faith. You need to feel a level of connection with the person who is guiding you through life. If you don't feel that, then the relationship won't work and the help won't help," says Michaelis.
Don't feel stuck with the first person you talk to. "Many people switch therapists at least once before finding the right one, or talk to multiple before settling down," says Kazez. In fact, Michaelis says he encourages his potential clients to talk to other clinicians before committing to make sure they have someone to compare him to to know if they're a good match.
And don't feel like you have to figure it all out yourself: "Ask therapists to help you decide whether they'd be a good fit for you," Kazez suggests. They've seen patients come and go, progress and resist under their style of guidance, so they'll know what questions will best show your compatibility.