Before You Go to the Psychiatrist/Psychologist/Social Worker

Before you go

Do a background check.

There are three basic types of psychological professionals. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental-health issues and can prescribe medications (best if you have a mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or definitely want to use medication); psychologists have usually earned Ph.D.s and also specialize in mental-health issues (best if you don't think the issue you're facing, whether it's anxiety or an eating disorder, will require meds); licensed clinical social workers have master's degrees and specialize in very specific areas like self-esteem, relationship counseling and so on (best if you need help in one particular area, and again, don't think you need medication).

To find a reputable therapist, call the American Psychological Association's referral service at (800) 964-2000. You can also locate groups devoted to specific conditions online, such as the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, which has a doctor-finder feature on its website (

Write down your major concerns.

Therapy can be challenging, and a first visit can be especially tough because you don't know each other. Write down a clear outline of what you want help with. If you're feeling really uneasy, simply hand the notes to the therapist when you first meet.

During the visit

Make sure the two of you mesh.

"During your first visit, don't focus too much on the content of the conversation," suggests Faith Tanney, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. "Instead, see if you're comfortable talking with the therapist, and make sure you don't feel judged or disrespected."

Evaluate her MO.

There are dozens of different types of therapy -- everything from art therapy to hypnosis -- so it's important to make sure that what your doc practices jibes with your needs. For example, if she insists that all of her stress-management clients meditate and you know you'll never comply, it's best to check out someone else.

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