How to Choose a Therapist: A Detailed Guide

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT
September 2, 2020

Finding a counselor, a therapist, or psychologist might seem easy, but finding and choosing a “good therapist might be a daunting experience for a lot of people. Your life, child’s life, or marriage might depend on it. There are probably a lot of concerns you have when it comes to choosing the right person to fully open up to. Don’t worry – that’s completely normal. You can alleviate some of this fear by simply understanding the various therapies used, the different types of professionals and what they specialize in, and some ideas to help start your therapy process.

psychodynamic talk therapy session

Because there are different approaches to therapy, you must understand the kind of therapist you are looking for. Below we have provided a quick summary of the different approaches and how they can help you with your issues.

Therapy Approaches

Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Approach – Developed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian Neurologist, this is a psychotherapeutic approach that focuses on changing the behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by discovering their unconscious meanings and motivation. If you believe that your problems might be caused by unconscious motivations, you might want to go to a psychodynamic therapist. He or she will help you explore the subconscious and bring about solutions to the presenting problems.

Cognitive Approach – This approach focuses on helping one change the way they think, to change the presenting problems. If you want to change your thoughts and or you think doing that will change your life, and if you also don’t believe in an unconscious – id, ego, and superego -then you might want a cognitive therapist.

connect to an online therapist today

Behavioral Therapy – This approach, developed by Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist, focuses on changing behavioral patterns through some level of conditioning or reinforcement. The goal of this approach is to help increase the desired behavior and decrease unwanted behavior in order to solve the presenting problems. Some behaviorists use a form of behavioral desensitization, a repeated exposure to feared stimuli (or the cause of anxiety), for a person to become less fearful.

Humanistic Approach –This approach emphasizes people’s capacity to make their own rational choices and reach their maximum potential. The Humanistic approach helps the person be more aware of the here and now, for them to be responsible for themselves.

Types of Therapists

After deciding what kind of therapeutic approach is best for you, you can narrow your search down to what you are looking for. At this point, the pool of “psychological alphabet”- Ph.D, Psy.D, MD, MS, and MSW, and all the labels from psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage & family therapist, family counselor, licensed professional counselor, social worker, to even medical professionals – will seem less scary.

While these professionals provide some level of mental health service, each brings a different level of training and experiences to the table.

Psychiatrists – They specialize in diagnosing and treatment of mental illnesses. They are also able to provide drugs. Psychiatrists are trained to provide psychotherapy or “talk” therapy which aims to help change a person’s behavior or thought patterns.

Psychologists – These professionals usually have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. and are experts in psychology. They are trained in counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing. Psychologists are not able to prescribe medications or diagnose mental illnesses, but they can make referrals to psychiatrists.

Counselors – Licensed counselors are usually required to have at least a Masters degree in counseling and up to 3,000 hours of experience before they can practice. Although counselors are unable to prescribe medications to individuals, they can diagnose and provide treatment for mental illnesses in groups or individuals.

Social workers – These Masters (degree) level professionals (there are some Ph.D. holders). provide social services in health and mental health- related areas. Social workers are typically trained to assess the psychosocial needs of their clients – that is, environment, social status, mental health, and functioning within society.

Now that the pool of therapy providers has gotten smaller, it is time to decide who to choose. When you start your search, keep an open mind. A therapist does not need decades of experience or a degree from an Ivy-League school to be helpful. Credentials are not everything and do not equal skills.

Deciding on a Therapist

Here some suggestions for choosing the therapist that works best for you and your situation.

Talk to friends and family members – Ask others about their experiences in counseling and therapy. This can be particularly helpful if you are new to the process. You may discover that often, people you know have been in therapy. They might also be able to provide insight into what kind of service you might need. If you have friends or associates who are therapists, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations. Due to the ethical issue of a dual relationship, your therapist friend or family might not be able to take you on their caseload.

Call local agencies and organizations – Calling local mental health agencies and asking for recommendations for therapists who have experience with your type of diagnosis will help narrow down your search. Not only might these agencies be able to provide a few names, but they might also be able to recommend resources that are close to your area. National organizations may have local chapters or contact persons near you. Keep in mind, though, that recommendations or referrals do not ultimately guarantee the quality of service you will receive, hence the next point.

Draw up a list of questions to ask in your initial interview – This is your life here. You should have the sole authority to decide if you want to keep seeing a therapist or if they are not what you want – and this includes character, professionalism, or whatever it is that may be personal to you. Do not be afraid to show up to your initial interview with an extensive list of questions. Write them down so you do not forget any. The questions on your list could range from the intensity of services, charges, fees, meeting times, insurance questions, and certain policies, to more personal questions such as information about the therapist. You will be disclosing personal information to this person; be sure to feel as comfortable with them as possible from the initial interview. If none of the therapists that you have interviewed is satisfactory, keep looking.

Trust your intuition – If it feels like the wrong fit between yourself and the mental health professional, you should not feel the need to continue with them. During your first appointment, be aware of how you feel when you are in the room with the therapist. Do you feel heard when you speak? Notice everything. You might not decide on the first session if the therapist is for you or not; just be honest with yourself as soon as you feel uncomfortable. You should also take note of any red flags, ethical concerns, or boundary issues that you think might affect your relationship with them. Be sure to raise these concerns with the therapist. A good counselor will not feel threatened by your honesty, rather, they might be willing to address your hesitation, or better yet, refer you to someone else that might work for you.

Decide -You have learned the differences between all the labels and alphabets behind the names, you have narrowed down the kind of therapeutic approach you are looking for, and you have interviewed friends, family, associates, and even the therapists. Now it is time for you to decide which one you are going with. While selecting the right therapist is a vital component of the overall process, it is more important to stay focused on the focal point: recovery. Getting so worked up about finding the right therapist for you might cause you to lose sight of the real issue. Beware of getting too involved in finding the “ideal” mental health professional. This could lead you to never getting to the work you need to do. Do not let perfectionism get in your way of recovery; be careful not to get into your head too much about the “right” therapist. Be more concerned about your healing process. If you have found someone who fits your needs, who is caring, skilled, flexible, who genuinely listens to you and wants to work together to solve the problem, it is time to stop searching.

While finding the “right” therapist, whatever that might mean to you, could be an unnerving experience, it is very doable. While there is a pool of “good” therapists to choose from, there are also several resources to help make the process less discouraging. You can easily find resources online and even just by talking to other people. The National Alliance on Mental Illnesses also provides several resources and support to those who need it.

Keep in mind that if you are having a mental health emergency, you should immediately call 911 if the situation is life-threatening. Several mental health hotlines are available 24/7 to help you if you need to speak to someone urgently.

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT

Adebolanle Ade is a Mental Health Social Worker and Registered Behavioral Technician. She has many years of experience writing and advocating for mental health awareness.