Find a Therapist: How to Choose the Right Mental Health Professional for You

Mark Robart, LICSW

Lady speaking with doctor

Finding a therapist that’s right for you can be an important step in addiction recovery.

There are many things that you can do on your own to improve your mental health. Getting sufficient sleep, exercising, eating well, and meditating are just a few of the many self-care practices that have been found to promote mental wellness.

Sometimes, however, these self-care practices aren’t enough, especially if you’re in recovery from substance use and dealing with coexisting mental health conditions. You may also find that group therapy helps, but, again, not enough.

If you have come to the realization that you could benefit from one-on-one care from a mental health professional, you have made an important step toward healing. The next important step is finding the therapist that’s right for you.

Narrow Your Search

Before you start looking in earnest, think about what you’re looking for. Addressing a few initial questions might help to narrow the scope of your search.

Are you in the midst of an acute crisis that you’re hoping to resolve quickly?

You may be looking for a short-term interaction with a therapist. Or do you have mental health concerns that you have been dealing with for a long time? You probably want a longer-term engagement.

Do you have a gender preference?

Do you want to meet with someone who is younger or someone who is older?

Answering questions like these may help you streamline your search quite a bit.

Do you have a specific treatment in mind that you think you would benefit from?

It’s okay if you don’t, but if you do, that will probably narrow down your prospective provider pool quite a bit.

Does the provider accept your insurance plan?

Most patients will choose a provider who accepts their insurance. This can be especially helpful if you plan to see the provider more than one or two times—as seeing someone without the benefit of insurance coverage can be cost-prohibitive.

If you find someone who isn’t on your insurance plan, but you’re convinced that this provider can help you, talk to that provider about finances. Many providers are willing to work with patients to develop a plan to reduce the patient’s out-of-pocket costs.

What Type of Therapy Do You Need?

The provider’s discipline is another important matter to consider early in the decision-making process.

Only psychiatrists and nurse practitioners  can prescribe medications, so if you’ve been told that you need to be on medication, or you think that you might benefit from medication, start by finding a provider  who can prescribe for you. In many cases, however, your primary care physician (PCP) can handle the prescriptive part. This approach may be helpful in parts of the country where there aren’t a lot of psychiatrists or nurse practitioners.

For talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, look for a licensed clinician (a psychologist, a social worker, or a licensed mental health counselor). Ask them to explain their specialization(s) and ways of delivering care. Ask them to describe the evidence base for the treatment model they practice. There are a lot of different behavioral treatments available now, which can be a little dizzying for a novice. If the provider can’t easily describe what the beginning, middle, and end of treatment would look like, you might question whether this is the right therapist for you.

Keep in mind that there are not many psychiatrists who do both medication management and psychotherapy. It may, therefore, be difficult to combine medication and talk therapy in one professional—but not impossible.

Seek Advice

Consider the advice of others to help guide your search. You might start by asking your PCP—assuming you have a good relationship with your PCP. It’s likely that your physician routinely refers patients to mental health providers, so that’s often a great place to start.

However, if you’re comfortable with discussing finding a therapist with friends or family members, it can be valuable to include them as part of your search. Whether it’s a therapist or a tailor, asking someone you trust for their opinion is a tried-and-true method for finding a good service. Your PCP may have a good fix on a provider’s specialization and reputation, but that doesn’t equate to personal experience.

If your employer has an employee assistance program (EAP), check to see whether the program offers some form of mental health support. It probably does. EAPs commonly refer employees to therapists, support groups, and hotlines. Some EAPs even offer free short-term counseling, with sessions generally provided in person and over the phone.

Are You Comfortable With Your Choice?

Once you’ve found a clinician, it’s important to meet with the provider a couple of times to see if there is a connection. And it’s okay to interview two or more prospective practitioners.

Mental health treatment is a very intimate process. You’re going to be asked a lot of personal, difficult questions, so feeling like you have a connection with a person is very crucial. You can do it over the phone, but an in-person meeting is probably more useful.

There are a lot of things that may come into play during these interviews. You may initially think that the therapist’s gender is not very important, but then decide otherwise after a consultation. You may also end up placing more weight on someone’s age or years of experience.

Online Tools

There are plenty of online resources available to help you find a mental health provider and low-cost mental health services.

Your local (state or county) government website may also have information about health services in your area. The Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH), for instance, has information about how to apply for DMH services or how to expedite a psychiatric inpatient admission.

Road to Recovery

After you have addressed the matters above and pick a therapist to go back to, please keep in mind that you’re not obligated to stay with that provider. Although there are merits to being patient, consider a change in course if your condition is not improving. Just as you wouldn’t continue going back to a restaurant that consistently serves you unappealing food, you shouldn’t go back to a provider who isn’t helping you.

Feel empowered as a mental health consumer. Do whatever you can to find the right professional partner in your journey toward recovery.

Mark Robart is the director of Residential Services at McLean Hospital. He oversees an array of short- and long-term treatment programs that serve adults with mood and psychotic disorders, complex personality disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. Robart also maintains a hospital-based private practice in which he treats individuals, couples, and families.