1. What kinds of things are important to consider when looking for and selecting a therapist?
There’s no easy answer to this. Before you start, ask yourself a few questions:
- Do you have a rough idea of what is contributing to your problem? Are you struggling with a recent break-up or some other acute change (pending graduation, family conflict, recent move, etc.)? Seeing a counselor, psychologist, or social worker would be a good place to begin.
- Are you looking at a career change or becoming more organized? A life coach may be worth considering.
- Have the problems been present for more than a few weeks? Do you find yourself sad a lot and don’t know why? Or do you have really severe mood swings or anger problems? Do you find yourself thinking a lot about what it would be like to be dead? Seeing a psychiatrist may be helpful to get an idea about how to move forward.
- Are friends or family telling you they’re concerned about how much alcohol or marijuana you consume? Do you find yourself getting high or drunk frequently and then regretting your choices later? It might be a good idea to see a substance abuse counselor.
- Do you have close friends or family members nearby who have had good experiences with a particular therapist, and can that person tell you why it was helpful? Are your problems similar to his or hers? A referral from someone you trust can be very valuable.
- Have you done an online search? Does the therapist have 125 reviews posted on a site and not a single negative one? That would make me pause. Reviews can be very difficult to interpret – people are much more likely to write a bad review if they’ve had a bad experience than a good review for a positive one. Look for patterns.
- Do you find multiple sites where there are many overwhelmingly negative reviews on a therapist? Does the therapist have a website or listing on Psychology Today? When you read what the therapist has written or see what has been posted (whether it be a description of the practice philosophy, a blog posting, an editorial, etc.) does it sound sincere or thoughtful? If you are looking at the background of a psychiatrist, you can often go to the state board of medicine website where you live and see if there has ever been any sanctions for unprofessional conduct.
- Does the therapist list a particular specialty or interest, such as dealing with anxiety or relationship problems? If the therapist lists 15 different “specialties,” chances are he or she doesn’t focus on any one field of study.
- Do you get a response to your phone call or email promptly? Is the therapist or administrative staff returning the call pleasant on the phone or abrupt? Do you feel pressured to come in if you’re uncertain? When you come in to the first appointment, are you made to wait excessively? Do you feel heard?
- Does the therapist have a relationship with an academic institution? For instance, is that person a clinical instructor or teacher at a local university? Nothing keeps a therapist on top of the latest literature than being challenged by a bunch of smart students!
Good places to also look include national agencies and advocacy organizations
- The National Institutes of Mental Health.
- You can also get referrals from your college counseling center, student health, or you family physician/primary care doctor.
2. What kinds of therapists and therapies exist, and how might these suit different individuals?
Lots of professionals do therapy – social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists (although many focus on just medication management), marital and family therapists, RN’s, life coaches, and so on. There are many different schools of thought. NIMH has a nice summary here.
3. Would you say gender is an important factor when choosing a therapist?
The short answer is, it depends. Go with your gut instinct; if you feel you would be much more comfortable with one particular gender or another, start there. There’s no hard or fast rule. It’s been my experience that usually within the first two to three visits the person has a pretty good idea whether the therapist is a good “fit.”
4. How should you prepare for your first appointment?
Often people are anxious before the first visit. Write some notes beforehand and bring them to the session with you if you’re concerned you might forget to discuss something you feel is important. Make a list of your medications to bring with you if you take any. Our practice website lists some screening questionnaires if people want to take them before the visit and bring them if they have identified a particular problem. They can be found here.
5. If you realize your therapist is no longer helping you, what should you do?
Problems don’t go away overnight. It’s valuable to have the conversation at the onset of therapy about possible duration and frequency of visits. It’s also important to be patient. If you come to the point that you feel therapy is no longer helpful, share these concerns directly with the therapist, preferably in person. Sometimes the therapist can change the approach or the focus of treatment. If that still doesn’t work, inform the therapist that it may be time to look for help elsewhere.
Dr. Stefanik talks about how to select a therapist with hercampus, a website devoted to the well-being of college women.