“Are You the One?”: A Guide to Choosing the Perfect Therapist
By Rony Ndam, Urban Trauma Counseling Intern
Deciding to commit to therapy is one of the most rewarding decisions a person will make in their lifetime. Pursuing professional help for your mental health struggles is a huge step in your lifelong journey to healing. Unfortunately, not many people take this step because mental illness is highly stigmatized in society. Many people have skewed perceptions of what therapy looks like. The pop culture representation of a “shrink” is not at all representative of a therapist. The field of mental health is much more expansive, diverse, and relatable. The first step to moving away from the negative stereotypes of mental illness is by demystifying therapy.
Now that you have decided to commit to therapy, you are probably wondering what your next steps should be. Firstly, congratulate yourself; you’ve moved forward in your journey to healing. The next step is finding and committing to a therapist. This may seem like a nerve wrecking task. However, this guide has provided six key areas you should focus on when choosing a therapist.
“So, What’s Your Background?”
At some point in your life, you may have heard many confusing and conflicting job descriptions of a therapist. A therapist does not have one overarching job description or one specific path. Mental health professionals of varying educational backgrounds, degrees, and licenses can call themselves “therapists”.
Depending on the state you reside in, a therapist might be an individual licensed as a licensed master social worker (LMSW), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor (LCADC), or a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC)…just to name a few. Though their occupations may seem similar, their respective licenses might impact how they conduct therapy. It is important to ask and research your potential therapist’s educational background and determine if they will benefit your needs.
It is also important to know if your potential therapist has any specializations or certifications. In the mental health field, professionals can get certifications or undergo specialized training to gain the skills necessary to work with specific sub-groups of individuals. These sub-groups can vary from individuals with trauma symptoms, culturally diverse individuals, or individuals who suffer from eating disorders. It is important to ensure that your potential therapist’s specialized trainings or certifications align with your needs and experiences.
Below are some questions you can ask your therapist about their background:
What type of license do you have?
Do you have any certifications?
Do you specialize in specific disorders or histories?
Not All Therapy Is The Same
Making the commitment to attend therapy can be quite nerve wrecking. On the first day of your therapy session, you will likely feel anxious and unsure of what to expect. The best way to alleviate some of these first day jitters is to ask your therapist ahead of time what to expect. Most of the time, this information can be found in the “Informed Consent” document that a client signs before their first session. You may also ask your therapist this question during your first session or during your consultation session (if offered). The best way to approach therapy is to allow yourself to get a feel for the therapist to see if this could be a good working relationship. Studies have shown that the best contributor to patient success is the nature of the therapeutic relationship.
Therapy serves as a resource to mitigate stress in your life, not add on to it. By simply asking your potential therapist about their approach to therapy, you will be able to have a clear idea of what to expect if you choose to move forward with them. However, it is important to note that not all therapy sessions are the same. One approach to therapy may not necessarily work for another individual with similar problems. It is important to do your own research on therapy approaches. It is also to important approach therapy with an open mind.
Below are some questions to ask your therapist about their approach to therapy:
How would you describe your approach to therapy?
What do you expect me to do on my end? Do you provide “therapy homework”?
Do you have a more direct or guiding approach?
Your Therapist’s Values Are Important
In today’s political climate, it may seem intimidating to ask a person their views on relevant topics in society. However, this should be a discussion that occurs with your potential therapist. You want to ensure that the individual you pick as your therapist has values that align with your own. At the very least, the therapist you pick should be empathetic and understanding of all lifestyles. The best way to approach this discussion is by directly asking your therapist their beliefs on topics you believe will come up during your therapy sessions. The most appropriate way to do so, while maintaining boundaries, is by only asking about their values on topics that are relevant to your therapy journey. For example, if you identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, it is detrimental that your therapist values this aspect of your identity. It is best to ask these questions before or during the first few therapy sessions to ensure the protection of your wellbeing.
Below are some phrases and questions to ask your therapist about their values:
“I have a history with ____. Do you have experience working with individuals with this background? What are your views on this issue?”
Have you worked with individuals from the ____ community?
Diversity is Key
In a 2012 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it was estimated that overall, only 16.6% of European-Americans, 8.6% of African Americans, 15.6% of Native Americans, and 4.9% of Asian Americans utilized mental health services. This is likely due to the prevalent stigma surrounding mental illness in many diverse communities. If you identify as a race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality minority, it is important that your therapist is either a member of said community or has ample experience working with individuals of said community. This is important because while you are in therapy, you never want to feel like you are educating your therapist on your experiences. Instead, there should be a mutual understanding between you and your therapist about the impact of your identity on your life. If it is possible, it may be more beneficial to initially seek out therapists who are members of your community. If it is not possible, make sure to ask your therapist the right questions to gauge their experience with working with members of your community.
Below are resources that provide search engines and directories of therapist who align with specific communities:
Finding a Therapist Based on Race and Ethnicity:
Black, African American:
Finding a Therapist Based on Sexuality:
Below are some questions to ask your therapist about their experience with diversity:
“I believe that being a ___ is an important aspect of my identity. Have you ever worked with individuals of a similar background?”
Do you have experience working with minorities?
(If your potential therapist is not a member of your community) Do you have access to a supervisor to consult about gaps in your experience with individuals of ____ identity?
Part of the reason therapy is so uncommon is because, unfortunately, therapy is not easily accessible for all individuals either due to lack of mental health insurance or ability to pay. Therapy, like other forms of healthcare, has associated costs. However, the goal is to reduce unexpected financial burdens by identifying a provider that accepts your insurance or that offers services in your price range. To avoid therapy becoming a financial burden, it is important that you ask the necessary preliminary questions to ensure the policies of the therapist or practice align with your financial needs.
Below are some questions to ask your insurance company and/or therapist about the financial policies:
How much do therapy sessions cost?
What insurances do you accept?
How much is my insurance copayment?
Do I have an insurance deductible that must be paid before my insurance benefits are accepted?
Do you offer sliding scale-based payments?
What is your cancellation policy?
What is the cancellation or “no show” fee?
The Most Important Questions
Arguably, the most important questions you will ask during this process are the questions you must ask yourself. Therapy is a difficult undertaking. Before signing up for therapy, it is important that you are prepared to commit to embarking on a lifelong journey of self-discovery.
Below are some questions to ask yourself about committing to therapy:
Why do you want to go to therapy?
Are you ready to commit to therapy?
What aspects of your life do you believe you need to work on?
Are you able to commit time in your schedule for therapy?
Do you feel safe with your potential therapist?
Do you feel heard and understood by your therapist?
Bloudoff-Indelicato, M. (2016, March 4). The 14 Questions You Should Ask a Therapist Before Your First Appointment. Washingtonian. https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/03/03/the-14-questions-you-must-ask-a-therapist-before-your-first-appointment/
Guenther, J. (2020, September 6). A Beginners Guide to Therapy. Part 1: How to find a therapist. TherapyDen. https://www.therapyden.com/blog/a-beginners-guide-to-therapy-how-to-find-a-therapist
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Racial/ Ethnic Differences in Mental Health Service Use among Adults. HHS Publication No. SMA-15-4906. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015.