A Beginners Guide to Therapy. Part 1: How to find a therapist

Jeff Guenther, MS, LPC on Sep 10, 2018 in Mood and Feelings

Illustration by Brandon Hrycyk

Part 1: How to find a therapist
Part 2: What to ask in the consult
Part 3: What to expect in the first few sessions
Part 4: How can you tell if therapy is working
Part 5: How to end therapy

How to find a therapist 

Finding a therapist should not be such a difficult thing to do. But unfortunately, it often is. And I’m sorry about that. As a therapist myself, I want to apologize on behalf of the mental health community. I am truly sorry about how annoying and bizarrely difficult it is to find a mental health counselor. But don’t fear! I am here to help guide you in your search for a perfect, or maybe good enough, therapist. There is one out there for you, I promise. There are probably dozens and dozens of therapists that would be a good match for you in your town. Part one of this blog series will help you find that elusive therapist. In subsequent installments, I’ll help walk you through the entire therapeutic process. So let’s begin. 

Why is it so difficult?

There are a lot of reasons finding the perfect therapist can be tough. One of the primary ones is that most people aren’t blabbing about how great their counselor is all over the place. When we find a good massage therapist or acupuncturist, we feel the need to announce it to the world. That’s not how it works with counseling. It’s a private thing that most people don’t really talk about. So you gotta do a search all on your own. Also, one person’s “amazing and life changing therapist” could be the next person’s total dud therapist. So sometimes, word of mouth referrals don’t really pan out all that great. 

It’s also tricky to find a therapist because how exactly do you know what makes a good therapist for you? Well, I hope to answer that question in this blog.

Credential Schmedentials

Here’s a common question I get from people seeking a therapist: do credentials and licensing really matter? Let’s dive into that real quick. (If you don’t care about credentials or find credential explanations boring then you should skip the next four paragraphs. I really wouldn’t blame you.)

I’m going to get some heat from all my therapist friends and colleagues, but I don’t think you should pay attention to credentials all that much. Unless you really want to. But all in all, as far as you (the average therapy seeker) should be concerned, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) is the same as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), which is the same as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). All those therapists are masters-level therapists, which means they have a master’s degree in the counseling field and they are licensed in their state to treat clients. The masters-level clinician is the most abundant type of counselor. All 50 states in the country have the same or similar types of titles for their masters-level therapists. 

And then you have the fancy pants “doctors.” These clinicians practice under the title of “psychologist.” Instead of going to an extra two years of college like the masters-level clinicians, they opted to put in an extra five years or so in order to get a Ph.D or Psy.D. I’m not going to get into the weeds too much about the difference. All I’ll say is that the Ph.D. degree is more researched based than the Psy.D. Someone getting their Psy.D. concentrates more on talking to clients instead of researching in the lab and writing a dissertation. Both are fantastic. Both should be referred to as “doctor” so and so.

That’s basically it. Therapists either have a master’s degree or a doctorate. But before they become a licensed counselor or a licensed psychologist they need to collect a certain amount of hours treating clients while under the care of a supervisor. The range of hours is between 2,000 and 3,000 depending on license type and state of residence. It usually takes 2 to 5 years to get fully licensed. And there is usually a comprehensive exam at the end of collecting all the hours. Therapists who are collecting hours and working towards becoming licensed still must register with their state board and clearly label themselves as unlicensed. They do this by adding the words “associate,” “intern” or “resident” in their title. The vast majority of the time, these unlicensed folks cannot yet accept insurance. However, they do often accept a lower fee. You shouldn’t steer clear of these clinicians just because they aren’t licensed yet. A lot of the time they are learning all the cutting edge techniques and get to talk to their supervision group about you. So it’s almost like a team of therapists are working on your case. 

Oh, one last thing. All of the above types of clinicians cannot prescribe psychiatric medication. You’ll need to go to a psychiatrist or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. A practitioner can only prescribe meds if they have medical training. 

Where do you search for a therapist?

On the internet of course. And other places. But let’s start with the internet. Did you know you can search for a therapist by scrolling to the top of this page and entering your zip code? It’s true! And then you can filter for all kinds of things that are important to you. TherapyDen is by far the number one way to find a great match. Take it from me! The owner and co-creator of TherapyDen. Honestly though, TherapyDen did just launch a few months ago and we don’t have all the therapists in the country signed up for a profile quite yet so you may want to search other places as well. A couple other popular places to search are the Psychology Today therapist directory and the GoodTherapy therapist directory. 

And of course, everyone’s favorite online search buddy, Google. Most therapists have a webpage. Which means most therapists can be found via Google. However, just because a therapist is showing up on the first page of Google it doesn’t mean they are the best therapist in town. It just means they know more about how to rank high in Google compared to all the other therapists in their city. Which is usually a pretty easy thing to do because therapists are not very tech savvy (which is one of the reasons it’s hard to find them). For that reason, it’s wise to look past the first page of the results when looking for a counselor. 

And if you’re counting on Google to find a therapist, don’t just search for “therapists in Seattle.” Get really specific. The more specific, the easier it’ll be to find a good match. Enter something like “therapist specializing in social anxiety in the university district Seattle.” 

But what if you don’t want to use the internet? Well then you should ask friends and family. See if they know of therapists they’d recommend. You can also ask your doctor. They are usually hooked up to large mental health networks. You can call your insurance provider and ask them for a recommendation too. Sometimes they can be pretty good at matching you up. 

A little trick that not many people know, and can be super helpful, is that you can call up any old therapist you find on the internet, even if you don’t think they’d be a good match, and explain to them what you’re looking to address in therapy and then ask them if they know anyone in the community that they think would be a good match for them. Us therapists are connected to a ton of other therapists in our town because we are constantly referring clients to other practitioners that we think would be a good match for someone. We are usually the best matchmakers there are. And most of the time, not all of the time, but most of the time, after we hear what you’re looking for, we know a handful of therapists that could be a great match for you and we’ll give you their contact info. Legally, we cannot call those therapists and make the appointment for you. But we can give you their contact info and you can follow up with them. 

How do you know if the therapist will be a good match?

This is the million dollar question, right? And when it comes down to it, you won’t really be able to answer this question until you meet in person. And even then, it could take a handful of sessions to really know if you’ve found someone who can truly help. But you can really narrow it down before meeting them if you know what to look for. 

First, what’s your problem? It’s okay if you don’t exactly know. Maybe you’re just feeling off. Or maybe you can’t shake a weird feeling. If that’s the case, then you could be suffering from a number of things and you might not want to search for a therapist based on your presenting problem. If you click here and filter by “Issues” you can learn about common issues that bring people into counseling. Maybe you’ll identify with one? But if you already know or suspect what the problem is, you should look for a therapist that specializes in treating that problem. There are a ton of therapists and we all specialize in different things. So when you are looking for a therapist to treat your issue, make sure they clearly state that they treat it on their directory profile page and on their website. Try to find a specialist instead of a generalist.

As you can tell from above, I don’t think credentials are all that important when looking for a therapist. All therapists and psychologists have at least a graduate degree in the counseling field. So don’t get too hung up on the specific title of a therapist. It also doesn’t really matter what university they went to. Again, that’s just my opinion. I don’t want you to get bogged down in these details. But if you do care, a therapist will most likely state where and when they graduated from school on their website. 

Do you know what type of treatment or intervention you’d like the therapist to use? Probably not and that’s okay. It’s the therapist’s job to figure out what treatment orientation we are going to use in order to best help you. Therapists are typically trained in many different styles. If you’d like to learn about treatment techniques, click here and filter by “techniques.” If you have a psychological orientation in mind, then be sure the therapist lists that technique on their profile or website.

Aside from the therapist being able to treat your specific issue and use a technique that resonates with you, what is often even more important is what kind of person the therapist is. And the best way to figure that out, before actually talking to them, is to read everything they have written on their profile page and website. 

As a therapist who helps other therapists market their services on the internet, I am constantly encouraging therapists to write as much content on their website as possible. I hope that all therapists have a blog page so that you can start getting an idea of who they are, what they think is important and what it’s like to sit in a room with them. You can tell that I value the therapist’s personality by the way I have structured TherapyDen profiles. Take a look at mine for example. By reading it you can clearly see who my ideal client is and you can also see what my values and personal beliefs are. From this information, you’ll start to form a picture of what it would be like to sit in a room with me and spill your guts. Being emotionally honest and vulnerable is easier to do if you trust and like the person you’re talking to.

What kind of person do you want to talk to?

Really ask yourself what kind of person you feel comfortable talking to. We are all drawn to different people. Do you want to talk to a nurturing and warm person? Do you want to talk to a scientific, professorial type? Do you want to talk to a non-binary, female or male identified therapist? What ethnicity or religion would you feel best with? Do you want them to have a Grandma vibe? Or how about a sibling vibe? Do you want them to be young or old? Do you want them to be funny or serious? Do you care about their sexual identity? All of these preferences are super valid. And you will want to take these preferences into consideration when searching for a counselor. 

You also might choose to talk to someone that you wouldn’t normally feel super comfortable talking to. And if you do that, it could be a healing and growing experience. For example, if you feel like it’s hard for to open up and trust older men, it could be an amazing experience to talk to an older male therapist and challenge the uncomfortable feeling that comes up for you. It would just be super important to tell the therapist that you have some uncomfortable feelings about them when you first start counseling. They won’t be offended. I promise. 

Request a free consultation

We are going to get into what to talk about during your first appointment or consultation in the next blog. But before we get there, you should ask for a free consultation before you commit to seeing your therapist weekly. Many therapists will talk to you for free in person. Others will at least talk to you for free on the phone. It’s important to do this so that you can get an even better idea of who this therapist is and if you’ll feel emotionally safe opening up to them in future sessions.

Why don’t therapists have reviews? 

We don’t have reviews of our services on the internet because it’s ethically, and depending on what state you’re in, illegal, for therapists to ask for or accept reviews. If you leave a review for a therapist, then you are no longer confidential because people can usually see who provided that review online. That would break confidentially, which is an important part of therapy.

Time to shop around

Now that you know how to find a therapist, get out there and give it a try. And remember, it’s important to shop around for therapists. Don’t just pick one and give them a try and hope for the best. Pick three to five therapists you think could be a good match and call all of them. If those don’t pan out, keep trying. Eventually it’ll work out. And when it does, it could very well be life changing. 

Read Part 2: What to ask in the consult

Jeff Guenther is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Portland, OR.
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