The following post originally ran on the Mental Health First Aid Blog.
Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to understand, recognize and respond to people who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis and connect people to care, if necessary. But what happens after people make the decision to see a therapist?
Finding and choosing a therapist can be a daunting task. This guide will walk you through the process, step-by-step.
Work With Your Insurance
One of the biggest barriers to therapy is cost, so most people want to find a therapist who is covered by their insurance. A good place to start looking for therapists who take your insurance is your health care provider’s website. Most provider websites have a “Find a Doctor” feature you can use to search for mental health clinicians near you, just like you would a physician. You can also select your health care provider on websites like PsychologyToday.com.
The Search – Things to Keep in Mind
Don’t get bogged down in the different professional degrees that a therapist can have – Ph.D., Psy.D., LCSW, LCMHC, etc. Any therapist who is licensed in your state has gone through rigorous background checks and training.
Some people have a strong demographic preference – men vs. women, for example. Unfortunately, finding someone who meets your exact criteria can be difficult. The good news is that you can still develop positive and productive relationships with a therapist who does not entirely align with your original criteria.
Most therapists list their treatment methods. They might say, for example, that they have a psychodynamic or behavioral approach. If you’re familiar with different approaches and you know what you’re looking for, great! If not, don’t worry. You can learn about the different general approaches online or wait to ask the therapist about their approach.
You might also want to take location into consideration. It’s helpful, for example, to pick a therapist who works near your home, work or school. Doing so eases the stress of transportation, scheduling and time.
Picking Up the Phone
Now comes the big (and often scary) step – making calls.
You have a list of possible therapists. It can be challenging to call a therapist without knowing them first. Some people find it helpful to make a list of talking points or a loose script to help guide the conversation. For example, you might start off with “Hi, my name is ___ and I’m looking for a therapist to help me work on ___.”
In your initial phone conversations, therapists expect and appreciate questions about their education, licensure, experience and approaches to care. Asking questions can give you a sense of the person’s therapeutic style and if they could be a good fit. Here are some questions which you might want to ask: Where did you get your training? Do you have experience treating such-and-such issue or working with such-and-such population? Do you use evidence-based practices like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or mindfulness? Do you take my insurance or have a sliding pay scale?
Availability – A Common Roadblock
Keep in mind that you might not be able to schedule an appointment with the first person you call. You might discover that your insurance provider’s records are outdated and some of the therapists listed no longer take your insurance, or maybe no one you initially reach is accepting new clients. It could take many calls before finding someone. Some people find it helpful to set up a schedule, a time to make and receive calls. When you leave messages, be sure to include your full name, call back number, times and dates that are best to reach you and your insurance information.
This is often a challenging and frustrating part of the search for a therapist, so it can be a good time to lean on those you are close with for support.
The First Session
The first few sessions are a time to explore if the therapist is a good match. Therapy can be uncomfortable, especially in the beginning, so it’s not unusual for the first few sessions to feel scary and awkward. However, an important sign if the therapist is a good fit is if you feel they create a space of emotional safety and comfortable physical boundaries.
A sign that the therapist is not a good fit is if they cross your physical or emotional boundaries in any way. If there’s something that would compromise your ability to have a good relationship with a therapist, don’t ignore it. Instead, try to schedule an appointment with a different therapist. Seeing multiple people can feel like a lot of effort, but finding the right person is worth it.
Good therapy is based in a good relationship. A healthy part of therapy for many is having a conversation about the therapist-client relationship. If the relationship doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to tell your therapist how you feel about the dynamic and that you might need to see someone different. A good therapist will be open to that conversation and will support you through that decision.
As a client it’s important to empower yourself. Therapists have a code of ethics which they must follow. The code of ethics for social workers and the code of ethics for psychologists are both available online. These are good references to have in the case of any inappropriate behavior or if you think your therapist has crossed a boundary. You can also report any inappropriate behavior to your state licensing board.
When Therapy Isn’t an Option
For many reasons – family, location or money – therapy simply isn’t an option for some people.
Unfortunately, many people still do not have access to insurance. In these cases, integrated care facilities like Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers (CCBHCs) and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) are good options because they provide care regardless of an individual’s ability to pay.
For those who do not have access to therapy but need help, hotlines are a great resource. There are many different regional and national hotlines available that provide support for different issues, including suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence. Trained advocates will support you through both critical and non-critical situations – you do not need to be in an immediate danger to call. While hotlines are not a substitute for counseling, they can be an important source of support.
#BeTheDifference in someone’s life, get trained in Mental Health First Aid.