Ok, so you’ve decided that you’d like to look for an outpatient therapist. This is a big first step! If you haven’t gotten that far, check out my post on how to decide if you should go to therapy. So, now that you’ve decided, you have to choose someone to see. This is a big decision! After all, you’re basically going to spill your guts to someone you don’t even know and hope it goes well (it usually does fyi). Here’s my guide on how to choose a fantastic therapist.
Step 1: Check with your insurance.
Therapy sessions often cost upwards of $100 an hour, so financial help through insurance is often a big factor. If you have insurance, call them or check their website and see if there are counseling centers or private practice therapists in your area who are in network. The other option is to start looking for a therapist and then checking their website or calling them to see if they take insurance.
Many therapists don’t take insurance at all. This can be for a number of reasons, including states who have stopped letting new therapists onto their insurance panels, insurance companies who limit diagnoses and number of sessions per client, etc. There are many excellent therapists who would take insurance if they could, and they’re still worth seeing even if you have to pay out of pocket. An alternative is if you have a FSA or HSA account. These funds can typically be used for outpatient counseling.
Step 2: Start searching!
If you already have a list of therapists through insurance, skip to the next step. If you have not called insurance yet or opt to not use it for whatever reason, one of my favorite websites to start with is Psychology Today. Start your search with your zipcode or city (I recommend city unless your town is all in one zipcode). From there, you can filter your results to get the best fit. You can filter by your insurance here if you’d like, and I’ll run through these other major filters in more detail.
Issues: If you look at this filter, you will see dozens of common primary issues for which people seek counseling. Hopefully you’ve thought about this! If you’re not sure yet, probably go back to my earlier post about how to decide. Choose the issues you’d most like to discuss to see therapists that specialize in these areas. Most therapists have worked with the most common issues, such as depression and anxiety, many times before. But if you would like to work on something a little more specific, this is a great filter to use.
Sexuality: If you would like to specifically discuss issues related to gender identity or sexuality, this filter will help you find therapists who specialize here.
Gender: This is simply the gender of the therapist. Some people care, some don’t. I think that great work can be done between genders, so it mostly depends on finding someone you’re comfortable with. If you have specific questions regarding gender, especially if you have past trauma, I would let the potential therapist know that early on to see if you’d still be good fit for each other.
Age: This is a simple and great filter. Some therapists always work with kids, others prefer adolescents, others never want to see a client under 30! Find someone who loves to work with your age group.
Language: If your heart language isn’t English and you’d like to find a therapist who knows your language, use this filter.
Faith: If you want a therapist whose faith aligns with yours, this is an important filter. Some therapists will specify their own faith for your reference, but most are willing and capable to work with a variety of religious beliefs. However, we therapists are human beings too, and our personal views are naturally going to affect how we counsel to an extent. If you are working with a therapist whose beliefs are strikingly different from yours, you may end up struggling to be on the same page, even if you have great rapport in other areas. More specifically, if you are struggling with spiritual issues, it makes sense to work with someone who has more personal expertise in this area.
Treatment Orientation: Ah, this one is tricky if you know nothing about therapy. Here’s the Psych 101 rundown. First off, many therapists use a combination of techniques, so don’t think that if they say they use such a such a theory, that’s automatically what you’ll be doing.
Anyway… Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) is one of the golden standards of the industry. Most therapist include it somewhere. It basically means they’ll have you look at negative or inaccurate beliefs and help you start to change those, which will in turn help you change your behavior.
DBT is another big one. DBT is great if you’re working on relationships, have a diagnosis of a personality disorder, or struggle to keep your emotions from controlling you.
EMDR is a therapeutic technique that uses bilateral stimulation to help you process trauma or emotionally difficult events. Motivational Interviewing is a popular technique for therapists working with clients with addictions.
Psychoanalytic is the classic Freudian technique (think facing away from the therapist while lying on a couch). Most therapists don’t use this anymore, but the psychodynamic orientation is somewhat similar. You might focus on your upbringing, bringing unconscious emotions to the forefront, or defense mechanisms.
There are literally so many different techniques that I can’t go into them all here, but if you have questions about a particular orientation, feel free to do some research on your own or contact me!
Online therapy: An option if you want to see someone out of your area. These sessions are sometimes cheaper as well. Be aware that it can be a little more difficult to build rapport when you don’t see each other in person. But if you mainly need to check in and process life, it can be a good alternative.
Step 3: Narrow down your search by deciding what kind of therapist to see.
First off, you may have noticed that I use therapist and counselor somewhat interchangeably. Some professional in the field may argue with me on this, but these terms are often used interchangeably in the industry. Generally speaking, a counselor is going to hold a master’s degree and have (or be working on) a professional license. Could be a social worker (LCSW) or counselor (LPC). Most jobs in our field will hire people with both licenses or degrees, so sometimes counselors are called social workers and vice versa. This is opposed to say, a psychologist, who has a doctorate. I wouldn’t refer to a psychologist as a counselor. But both psychologists and counselors could be generally termed therapists if they provide mental health therapeutic services. Anyway…there’s that. Now, let’s talk about all those letters behind therapists’ names….
MA, MS, MSW, PhD, PsyD- the degrees the therapist holds. MA, MS, and MSW are master’s degrees, PhD and PsyD are doctorates and typically indicate a psychologist.
LPC, LMHC, LCPC (varies by state)- typically indicates a licensed professional mental health counselor. They’re trained to do individual, group, and often couples and family therapy. This very in-depth report will show you each type of credential in each state, as well as provisional licenses for new counselors, and the education required for these licenses.
LCSW- Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Similar to a LPC, but LCSWs are more likely to be trained in family systems and have training in advocacy and policy. Great for victim advocacy, domestic violence, DHS cases, family therapy.
LMFT- Licensed Marriage and Family therapist. Specifically trained for, obviously, marriage and family therapy. Many LMFTs are also great at individual therapy.
ATR- registered art therapist.
NCC- National Certified Counselor. An optional credential that can be seen as an extra accomplishment.
MEd- Master’s in Education. Often a school counselor, but could indicate someone who got an education degree and went on to obtain a counseling or social work license.
CAC II, CAC III, LAC (in some states)- Certified or Licensed Addictions Counselor. Typically an additional certification to show an addictions speciality.
LPCC, LSW, MFT, Registered Psychotherapist, LMHCA, LAC- usually indicates someone who is a fairly new counselor and working on their license. Depending on the license and state, it can take 2-3 years to get all the requirements done. These therapists have at least a master’s degree. Many of them are still really great and sometimes cheaper too, but they do have less experience.
Licensed Psychologist- a doctor in psychology. They are licensed to practice independently, which basically means they don’t have to have a supervisor. They are often more expensive. Psychologists are also great if you need specific testing, such as for Autism, ADHD, etc.
Step 4: Learn about them.
Once you’ve got a basic list of counselors who meet your criteria, do a little more digging by reading their Psychology Today bio or their website if they have one. Find someone who sounds like they’re talking to you, someone who sounds like they would get you. Do you have a few things in common? Does she remind you of a favorite mentor? Does he seem like someone who is trustworthy? I once chose a counselor partially based on the fact that we were from the state. And even though that seems small, it honestly helped her understand my perspective multiple times.
Step 5: Contact them.
Reach out to your top choices (I recommend 2 or 3). See if they’re taking new clients, when they have available appointments, and if they offer a free consultation. Expect most therapists to answer with 1-2 days, excluding weekends. I always recommend setting up a consultation if you can, because then you can meet them without fully committing. I’d set up multiple consultations, actually! Some people immediately set up an appointment with whoever responds to them first, but take your time and find someone who is truly a great fit for you.
Step 6: Go to your first appointment.
Ok, you’ve made a decision, met a therapist who seems great. Now you just have to go to your first appointment! You’ve already done a ton of work to get this far and that is seriously amazing. Hope it goes well!!
If this post helped you successfully find a therapist, I would love to know in the comments!
No affiliate links in this post, anything I have suggested is simply because it’s useful.