Your Step-by-Step Guide to Finding the Right Therapist

You may have introductory sessions with multiple potential therapists before you pick one to work with in the long term.
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You've made the decision to address your mental health with the help of a professional. Good for you! Now, how do you go about finding the right therapist to work with?

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If you're new to the world of therapy, finding a qualified expert to talk to can feel daunting. Do you just start Googling? Go through your doctor? And once you've tracked down someone who's nearby and available, how do you figure out if they're both qualified and a good fit for you?

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Connecting with a great practitioner can take research and time, but with a little effort, you'll be able to find your match. To help, here's a step-by-step guide to help you find ​your​ therapist.

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An internet search, online databases and recommendations from your doctor or loved ones are all good places to start when it comes to finding the right therapist for you.

1. Decide What You’re Looking For

Therapy isn't one-size-fits-all. To narrow your search, start by thinking about the type of person you'd feel most comfortable working with.

"Would you prefer a male or female? Would you like a certain age range? Do you want someone who deals with certain sensitivities that you might be working on, or someone with experience working with [people who are] LGBTQ or [have] trauma, for instance?" says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago.

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Also, consider the type of therapist that might be most helpful. A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) or psychologist (PsyD or PhD) will offer talk-based therapies, while a psychiatrist (MD or DO) can prescribe medications like antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

Finally, take some time to think about what you're hoping to gain from therapy. Kitley recommends writing down the following:

  • Reasons you want to talk to someone
  • Specific issues you want to tackle
  • What you want to get out of treatment

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That can make it easier to identify a therapist that can meet your needs, both while conducting your initial search and when you go in for your first appointment.

2. Check Your Insurance

Not all health plans cover mental health services. Call your provider to see if you're covered and, if you are, to get the details surrounding your coverage.

Some plans will require you to get a referral from your primary care doctor or see a therapist within network. You might also be responsible for a co-pay or be limited to a certain number of sessions per year, according to MentalHealth.gov.

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If your insurance provider doesn't cover therapy, though, don't sweat it. Many therapists also offer sliding scale prices, which means they adjust the cost of your therapy sessions based on your financial circumstances, per the University of Rhode Island. That way therapy is still affordable, no matter your income or socioeconomic status.

Just be sure to discuss those rates when you connect with a therapist for the first time (more on that later) to make sure it fits into your budget.

3. Talk to Your Doctor

Let your primary care doctor know you're planning to start therapy.

"Collaboration of care between your physician and therapist is important," says Morgan Levy, PhD, a psychologist based in Boca Raton, Florida. "If a person has medical conditions going on, the doctor can provide insight on how it could be impacting a person psychologically and vice versa."

It's also important for your doctor to be in the loop if a psychiatrist prescribes medications.

That's not all: Depending on your insurance coverage, you might need your primary care doctor to refer you to a therapist. And if you're looking for recommendations for specific therapists, they may be able to suggest someone they know and trust, Kitley says.

4. Browse for Therapists

Your primary care doctor is one potential source for finding a therapist, but they're not the only one. Other good search options include:

Google

There's nothing like a Google search to get you started with finding a therapist. Just add your zip code to the search to find therapists located nearby for in-person sessions, Levy says. Prefer teletherapy? You can expand the search to your entire state.

Therapist Databases

The APA's Psychologist Locator and National Register of Health Service Psychologists are two reputable options that allow you to search for therapists in your city or state. If you don't have insurance coverage or are on a tight budget, Open Path Psychology Collective has a database of therapists offering sliding-scale fees.

Your Insurance Provider

Most providers will have in-network practitioners listed on their website. If yours doesn't, give them a call.

Friends and Family

If someone you're close with has experience with therapy — and you feel comfortable bringing it up — ask if they have a trusted therapist they can recommend.

Local Colleges and Universities

These can be an especially good option if you're looking for more affordable therapy options. "Many have centers with counselors who are training with supervisors. They charge less and are up to date on the latest therapies," Levy says.

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5. Do Some Digging

Once you've found some potential therapists, go a step further and check their websites to learn more about their background and expertise. This can give you a better sense of whether they'd be a good fit before you reach out, Kitley says.

The therapist's website should list their qualifications, training and where they're licensed to practice.

In most cases, the website will also share information about issues the therapist specializes in (like stress, eating disorders or grief, to name a few), populations the therapist has experience working with (like children, couples or people who speak a specific language) and the types of treatment they offer (like art therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy).

A lack of details could be a red flag, though: "If they don't have a website or the information isn't listed, I'd be a little leery," Kitley says.

6. Connect With Your Finalists

Once you've done your research, narrow your list of potential therapists down to three to five candidates who seem like they could be the best fit, Kitley says.

"It's important to have a couple names at hand," she says. "Especially now, a lot of therapists are very full. So finding the one you'll see could end up being about scheduling."

You can contact your picks via email or phone to learn their availability, Kitley says. If you're looking for additional information that wasn't listed on the therapist's website — like fees, scheduling or cancellation policies — now's a good time to ask.

Want to learn a little more about the therapist before committing to a full session? "A lot of therapists offer free consultations on the phone or via video to provide some insight on what you might need," Levy says.

7. Try a Session

Your initial visit with the therapist — sometimes called an intake appointment — is a chance to discuss your background, what brought you to therapy and what you'd like to work on. It's also a great opportunity for you to get a sense for whether you feel comfortable around and connected to the therapist.

"So much of it is your gut. It's almost like you're going on a first date, looking to see if the person hears and understands you," Kitley says. For instance, if you feel judged or get a sense that the therapist isn't paying attention to what you're saying, those are signs that the relationship isn't a good fit, she says.

Keep in mind, too, that you won't always click with a therapist right away — or ever. "It can be hard to find someone that feels like a good match. You could try one or two more sessions to see how it feels," Levy says.

But if you're still not meshing or don't feel comfortable making another appointment, it's fine to move on. Go back to your list, book a session with another one of your picks and try again. Before long, you'll find your fit.

What Else to Expect From Your First Session

After learning about your background and goals for treatment, a therapist may be able to give you a rough idea for how long it might take before you start to see results. “I like to tell patients that I hope for them to be making progress within six to eight weeks,” Kitley says.

You can also ask about setting milestones to measure your success, like having fewer panic attacks or engaging in certain activities with less anxiety.

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If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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