Finding a new therapist can feel like shopping for a car or going on a first date. There are a lot of unknowns, so you've got to do some digging to see if you've found The One. And that involves knowing what questions to ask when interviewing a potential therapist.
But what exactly should you be asking — and when? Here are the questions to ask a therapist during your consultation period that can help you decide whether they're the right fit, plus the answers you should look for.
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Before Your First Appointment
These initial questions will give you a sense of your therapist's experience and expertise, plus key details like payment and privacy.
Not all of them warrant a conversation, though. You might be able to find some or all of this information on the therapist's website, but if it doesn't seem to be available, bring them up via email or on the phone.
1. What Are Your Qualifications?
A qualified therapist will have completed training to provide mental health services, so start by making sure they're licensed to practice in your state, per the American Psychological Association (APA).
Most therapists will have their credentials listed clearly on their website. Here are some common accreditations to look for:
- Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)
- Licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)
- Psychologist (PsyD or PhD)
- Psychiatrist (MD)
The website should also spell out how long the therapist has been practicing and where they completed their training, says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker based in Chicago.
2. What Are Your Fees?
Next, find out how much you'll pay per session and whether the therapist takes your insurance.
It's also worth learning up front how much the therapist charges for missed sessions, says Morgan Levy, PhD, a psychologist based in Boca Raton, Florida. Some might ask you to pay the full fee while others will only ask for a portion.
If your sessions won't be covered by insurance or you can't swing the therapist's rates, you can see if they offer more affordable options, such as sliding scale payments. Not all do, but it never hurts to ask. And if the answer is no, you can ask the therapist if they can share any referrals that better fit your budget.
"Many universities and colleges, for instance, have counseling centers with therapists who are training with supervisors that offer therapy at lower rates," Levy says.
3. Do You Have Experience Treating My Concerns?
Different therapists specialize in helping people work through different types of problems, so it's worth making sure yours regularly deals with the issues you're hoping to work through.
"If you're someone who has experienced a history of trauma or emotional abuse, look for someone who specializes in complex trauma," Levy says. "If you have a phobia or panic attacks, look for someone who specializes in anxiety."
Most therapists list their areas of expertise right on their website, Kitley says. But if you're having trouble finding what you're looking for, you can ask about their experience directly.
Similarly, if you’re finding a therapist for a child or an older adult, seek out someone who has experience with those age groups, according to the APA.
4. How Do You Feel About Working With a Person of My Culture or Background?
Cultural considerations like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and religion shape our identities. Your therapist doesn't necessarily have to be just like you, but they should have experience that helps them understand where you're coming from. Otherwise, you might have to spend time educating them on your cultural background, per the Cleveland Clinic.
You can ask a therapist about their own cultural background, but there are other ways to frame the question if that feels too direct.
"Some might not want to share a lot about their own personal background, but you can ask," Levy says. "You can also ask what kind of experience they have with 'X' background or whether they feel comfortable treating people with that background."
5. What Will Our Therapy Sessions Look Like?
There are many different types of therapy — cognitive behavioral therapy, neurofeedback and guided imagery therapy, to name a few. And it's important to make sure the type of counseling a therapist offers fits with your goals and needs.
A therapist will often list the types of treatments they use on their website, but if you don't know what a term means or involves, speak up. "You can ask what a typical session would look like, as well as whether they assign homework for you to do in between sessions," Kitley says.
There are no right or wrong answers, of course. If you like the way a treatment or typical session sounds, the therapist could be a good fit. But if it doesn't sound enjoyable or helpful, then you may not feel comfortable working with that therapist.
6. How Do You Protect My Information During Virtual Therapy?
Therapists are legally bound to use HIPAA-secure technology so any chat messages or virtual sessions aren't stored on servers or other websites.
"If I'm using FaceTime or Facebook messenger to see a client, for example, I cannot guarantee that the session or messages aren't stored somewhere on someone else's servers," Levy says. "When a therapist is using software that is HIPAA-secure, then the software company guarantees the information is protected.
Making sure your practitioner has these safeguards in place can protect your privacy. For virtual sessions, "the therapist should also guarantee that there is nobody in the room with them during sessions and that they are guaranteeing privacy," Levy says.
Follow your gut — if a potential therapist has satisfactorily answered all your questions but you still don't feel comfortable proceeding with them, it's OK to continue your search.
At Your First Appointment
After learning the basics about the therapist (and giving the therapist some basic information about yourself), you'll have an in-person or virtual intake appointment.
During this initial visit, you and your therapist can get to know each other better and talk about your goals for therapy, Kitley says. You'll spend a lot of time sharing about yourself, but there are still opportunities to learn some more specifics about how the therapist can help you.
Here are the questions to ask when interviewing a potential therapist during this period:
7. How Long Do You See Us Working Together?
After learning about your background and goals for treatment, a therapist should be able to give you a rough idea of how long it might take before you start to see results.
"One thing people are often concerned about is that they're going to be coming to therapy for years," Kitley says.
But that's not usually the case. "I like to tell patients that I hope for them to be making progress within six to eight weeks," she says.
8. Can We Set Milestones?
Once you and the therapist establish a reasonable timeline for when you can expect to see changes, ask about how you'll measure your progress. "Being able to put some structure around things can be really helpful for some patients," Kitley says.
Success milestones will look different for everybody depending on what they're trying to work on and where they're starting from. But the therapist should be able to share some potential markers that feel concrete.
For example: "If someone is initially having two or three panic attacks a day, we try to work on decreasing that number through mediation and deep breathing exercises," Kitley says.
Getting the Right Answers
Questions about things like licensing, fees and privacy have clear answers — either they work for you or they don't. And if a therapist dodges your questions or makes you feel judged for asking something, those are red flags, Kitley says.
But beyond that, deciding whether a new therapist is a good fit is mostly about how the person makes you feel.
"So much of it is your gut," Kitley says. "A lot of time people will report having a sense of relief when they find someone they connect with, like [you] feel really safe and comfortable, like someone finally understands."
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