How to Find a Therapist
In a recent blog post, I talked about what you can expect if you start therapy. In that post I briefly talked about how to find a therapist, and when therapy is appropriate. Now, I want to go into more depth with that first point: how to find a therapist. It's something many people wonder, but there unfortunately isn't an easy/clear/obvious answer to that question. Finding a therapist should be easier than it currently is, but that will require changes to the broader mental health system. Until that happens, below are some tips for how you can find a therapist in the current system.
Note: The tips provided here generally apply to those interested in standard psychotherapy (e.g., CBT). However, there are certain formats of therapies that work differently (e.g., programs like alcoholics anonymous). If you're looking for another format of therapy, the below may not always apply.
1. Put Together a List
Check With Your Insurance
Therapy can be expensive, so you want to have it covered (at least partially) by your insurance if at all possible. That means finding a therapist that is in-network, just like you would a medical physician. If you call your insurance company, they should be able to send you a list of providers in your area. Or, even easier, you should be able to log into their website and see a list of providers that way. Therapists are generally listed under "mental health" or "behavioral medicine."
One option that may not seem obvious is to check the hospitals in your area. Many of them have mental health clinics that have a good number of therapists. If your insurance covers medical care at that hospital, it may also cover mental health services there (though you would want to speak with the clinic at the hospital to verify, as there are exceptions).
The reason contacting a clinic at a hospital may be helpful is that many also have practicum students (like myself). These are clinical psychology students with advanced training who work under the license of a supervisor. They're unlikely to be listed on your insurance provider's website, but they are potentially an option for receiving therapy. Depending on the state, the types of insurance that will cover care from a master's-level practicum student varies, so you'll want to talk with someone in the clinic who can verify if your insurance will cover services there.
Similar to hospitals, community-based clinics may also have practicum students who could work with you. Again, they may not be listed by your insurance provider as in-network (though the primary clinicians in the clinic might). If there's one at a convenient location for you, call them to ask if they accept your insurance there. If not, they might have a list of other community clinics that do take your insurance.
An alternative way to find providers, especially those in private practice, is to utilize search engines that contain listings of therapists. The APA maintains one, as do a few other sites (e.g., Good Therapy). However, something to keep in mind with these search engines is that therapists generally have to pay to be listed there. That means they're not necessarily comprehensive and there may very well be providers in your area that aren't on there.
This is one that some may be uncomfortable doing. But odds are good that your friends have either seen a therapist before, or know someone who has. If that's the case, they can potentially recommend someone who was helpful in a situation similar to your own.
Get a Referral
If you work closely with a physician, you can ask them (or your PCP) if they have any recommendations. Often that will end up being a referral for a clinic associated with their medical network, but they may also know of other clinics that other patients have found helpful.
2. Check Their Credentials
When looking at a list of therapists, you want to get a sense of what their training background is. Those with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. have doctoral degrees in clinical psychology and hold the title of psychologist. An M.D. or D.O. is a medical physician, and if they are in a mental health clinic they most likely work as psychiatrists. L.C.S.W. and M.S.W. are social work degrees (licensed clinical social worker and master's of social work, respectively). Those with these degrees sometimes provide therapy, and sometimes focus more on coordination of resources (e.g., helping people coordinate with school/work for necessary accommodations).
For therapy, psychologists are generally the most reliable option, with some social workers providing very similar forms of therapy. Psychiatrists sometimes incorporate therapy into their work but, due to high demand for their services, often spend most of their time focused on prescribing and monitoring psychotropic medications (e.g., antidepressants).
If you're going to someone who is covered by your insurance, you should be able to feel pretty confident that they hold appropriate credentials (e.g., a valid license in your state). However, if you are paying out of pocket you need to be very careful to check the credentials of the therapist. There are many out there with limited to no advanced training in psychology who will happily take your money in exchange for giving you advice. Beyond checking degree and licensure, it can be helpful to remember that the title of "psychologist" can only legally be held by those with sufficient training (usually a doctorate, but in some circumstances a master's degree). Just because someone calls themselves a "therapist" or even "psychotherapist" does not automatically mean they have advanced training or a valid license.
There are plenty of great therapists who work in private practice on their own. But if you're unsure of their qualifications, going to a hospital's clinic (or a well-established community clinic) is generally a safe route. You will just be more likely to run into a long waitlist, as those sites are more likely to accept a broader range of insurance plans.
3. Check Their Areas of Expertise
All therapists have broad training in various forms of therapy for a variety of situations/conditions. But nearly all of us have certain populations we're most interested in working with, and thus have the most familiarity with what will help people in those populations. That can include couples therapy, family therapy, parent coaching, CBT for anxiety/depression, working with children/adolescents/young adults, working with people who have medical conditions (my personal area of interest), and so on. You can think of it as similar to seeing a medical specialist (e.g., an endocrinologist has broad medical training but is most familiar with endocrinology).
Most therapists will have some form of online listing, either for their private practice or the clinic they work for. There, you can often find a listing of what areas that person specializes in. Now, you don't need to know in advance exactly what type of therapy you need; that's for the therapist to help you determine. But what can be helpful is to rule out therapists who very clearly aren't appropriate for your needs. Are you a middle-aged adult struggling with work and marital stress? A child-focused therapist probably isn't the best choice.
Ultimately, you may not get much say on who exactly you work with, at least if you go to a clinic. That will often depend on the availability of the therapists. But you can always express an interest in working with someone specific, or someone with specific expertise. Otherwise the clinic will be able to determine what type of therapy will be most helpful for you, and can assign you to the first available therapist that is competent in that form of therapy.
4. Monitor Fit
As I mentioned in my other post, it's important to have a good fit with your therapist. That means finding someone you feel comfortable talking to about sensitive topics, whose advice you trust, and who you feel motivated to continue seeing for therapy. Sometimes that fit takes time to develop, and sometimes it just never develops. If it doesn't, then consider trying to find another therapist. You can even ask your current therapist (if you have one at the time) if they have recommendations based on what you felt like wasn't quite working. The therapist can A) either address some of your concerns and tweak the format of therapy, or B) suggest another therapist who may be a better fit for you. It may involve waiting for that other therapist to have an opening, but it may be worth it in the long run if you'll be able to make more progress in therapy more quickly as a result.
That being said, most people enjoy the first therapist they work with and they don't feel the need to transfer to someone else. Just know that it's an option if you happen to feel like the first one isn't a good fit for you.
As I mentioned, this isn't the most ideal way to find a therapist. Even after you find one that may work, it could take a long time before you're actually able to start working with them. But for the time being, this is how the process works. If you think therapy might be helpful sometime in the near future, I highly recommend starting the process of identifying someone, and maybe even getting your name added to the waitlist. It's much harder to navigate this process once you've reached a point of really needing the services.
Have questions about the process? Were you able to find a good therapist in a way other than what I've listed above? Let me know in the comments!