At first glance, the concept of finding a therapist seems simple enough. Do a little Googling, and if you have insurance, try to find someone who takes yours so it’s not too pricey. Make an appointment, and that’s it! You’re just a few sessions away from better mental health.
As someone who has never been able to find a therapist I want to stick with for more than a handful of sessions, I can tell you it’s not that simple at all. Sometimes I would know within one session that a therapist wasn’t the right fit for me, and other times it would take a few sessions. But every time, I walked away feeling defeated, wondering if I would ever find a mental health professional that was a good match for me.
Because I’ve had a handful of friends complain about the same problem, I decided to reach out to real therapists to get their best tips for finding a good therapist. Here’s what they had to say.
Ask your friends for recommendations.
"Hey, know any good therapists?” might be a personal and slightly awkward question to bring up with your friends, but according to New York-based holistic psychotherapist Alison Stone, it could get you exactly what you’re looking for: A great therapist.
“Ask any of your friends who are currently in therapy to ask their therapists for suggestions. Therapists have an incredible network of colleagues at their fingertips and can often help with some of the logistical legwork of finding a therapist,” she says. “Similarly, if you’re comfortable enough, asking others you trust—a family friend, a doctor—for referrals is always a good way to start accumulating names of therapists who are trusted and vetted."
Be realistic about your budget and use your resources.
In an ideal world, money wouldn’t be a factor in choosing a therapist at all. Unfortunately, most of us can’t afford that $300-a-session out-of-network therapist, so come up with a realistic therapy budget and use the resources available to you. “Sources like Psychology Today are great because you can click on different filters that will help you find therapists who take your insurance,” says Thea Gallagher, Psy.D.
Gallagher also notes that many insurance companies do provide some out-of-network reimbursement, so it’s worth calling your insurance company to ask if that’s an option for you.
Find a therapist who treats the issue you’re struggling with.
While we can’t all articulate exactly why we want to see a therapist, the more specific you can get when you launch your therapy search, the better off you’ll be. “Many therapists are generalists. They treat a wide variety of mental health issues, and many advertise that they treat almost everything, which can be misleading,” says Shira Myrow, LMFT. “Therapy has become a niche profession. If you’re struggling with addiction, you want to see someone who really works with that demographic, not just someone who says they will help with your depression and anxiety and treats your addiction as a secondary problem."
Be open and honest from the start.
No one will benefit from you not wanting to hurt your therapist’s feelings, so once you book a first session—as a side note, there are therapists who will offer to give you a free first session to see if it’s a fit, so that’s worth asking about—go in there with the goal of being honest, and be prepared to ask questions. “Do you want to learn some practical skills in addition to getting validation of your emotions? Ask about the therapist's typical approach, style, and models of therapy she uses,” suggests Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT and therapist at Talkspace.
Try not to make too harsh a first-session judgement.
Stone recommends knowing the personality type your prefer to work with, if possible. And then schedule a session to determine if the two of you are a match. “Do you prefer someone who is warm and curious, or blunt and opinionated? Such nuances can only be determined through meeting and will ultimately make the biggest difference in your overall experience," she says.
At the same time, Gallagher cautions against writing someone off after just one session unless you really don’t get a good vibe from him or her. “Sometimes giving it a little time will make it work, so be careful not to make too harsh a judgement after your first session. “If in the end you feel like something about it isn't working, be open and honest and say you're going to find something that's a better fit. It's okay to say, ‘Hey, I work better with a certain personality type.'"
Is finding a great therapist easy? Based on my experience—and the honest conversations I had with real therapists—not really. But with enough research and patience, finding the right match is far from impossible.