Stressed? Overwhelmed? Anxious? You’re not alone. Since the start of the pandemic, mental health professionals have witnessed a flood of people struggling to cope with anxiety, uncertainty, and depression. An October 2021 study found that the pandemic has led to 76 million additional cases of anxiety disorders globally, and young people and women are more likely than others to have mental health needs.
That’s where therapy comes in. “One in five American adults has a mental health condition,” says Joanne Frederick, EdD, NCC, LPC, LCPC, a Washington, D.C. licensed mental health counselor. “Talking to friends and family is great; however, they are not professionals. Often, they are too emotionally close to you to give unbiased and honest outlooks and perspectives.” A therapist, on the other hand, can help you shift your point of view and find different ways to address challenges.
Yep, therapy can be life-changing. But if you’ve never been in therapy, how do you know how to find the right counselor for you? Ahead, a guide to choosing a therapist who gets you—and who can be your partner in improving your mental health.
Understand the therapist’s background
Mental health providers come from a variety of training and educational backgrounds, so there’s no single approach to helping people feel better. What therapists do have in common is a desire to help their patients. “There are various methods of therapy,” says Dr. Frederick. “There is no right or wrong; it’s simply what is the best fit for a patient.” Some therapists specialize in addressing issues such as eating disorders, recovery, or couples counseling; others see patients with a wider variety of needs. “Make sure that your chosen therapist has expertise in the area of mental health you need help in,” Dr. Frederick says.
Before choosing a therapist, contact a few to learn more about their offerings and clinical style. This “getting to know you” process should help you understand a potential therapist’s experience, background, philosophy, and approach. Dr. Frederick suggests asking these questions to help you understand whether a therapist could be a good match for you and your needs.
- How long have you been in practice?
- What professional organizations do you belong to?
- What is your availability?
- What is your exact title/licensing?
- How much do you charge? Do you accept my insurance?
- Do you have clients/ patients with similar issues to me?
- How often do you suggest we see each other and will this be in person or virtual?
- What do you expect of me as the patient?
In addition, you may be seeking a therapist who deeply understands or can personally relate to aspects of your identity, heritage, and/or life experience. A Google search (e.g., “LGBTQIA+ affirming therapist near me” or “Asian American therapist near me”) can steer you toward mental health care providers and group therapy sessions where you’ll be welcomed. “There are many therapists who will list themselves under search engines or directories specifically under these search words to indicate that they are a member of these communities or specialize in treating patients who are,” Dr. Frederick says. Other online resources include National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, Therapy For Black Girls, and Asian Mental Health Collective.
What to do if your therapist isn’t the right fit
By nature, therapy can bring up uncomfortable topics—but a good therapist should make you feel comfortable, heard, and supported. “If you feel comfortable with a therapist and your gut instinct is pointing in the right direction, you need to give it several sessions as there is no overnight cure,” Dr. Frederick says.
Sometimes, though, a therapist might not be the right fit for you. In that case, it’s all right to move on. “If they were ‘nice’ but you just didn’t feel a connection, you can be honest and say that,” Dr. Frederick says. “You should feel free to find someone whose style of therapy and personality are better suited to your needs.”
In some cases, it’s best to end the relationship immediately. For example: If a therapist makes sexual advances, is emotionally abusive, or unprofessional, it’s time to walk away—no explanation needed.
Why therapy takes time
Therapy isn’t a quick fix—but it is well worth your time. “Engaging in talk therapy, especially if it is your first time, can help uncover root issues that may be buried in your subconscious,” Dr. Frederick says. “It can help you develop coping strategies and give you a better understanding of yourself and how to deal and react to those around you.”
That doesn’t happen in just a session or two, as the process takes consistent effort. “Effective therapy is not magic,” Dr. Frederick says. “A patient must also be willing to put forth as much work as the therapist in order to achieve goals and make progress.” But for those who commit to working on themselves, therapy can help build self-esteem and lead to a healthier and more fulfilling life. That’s a possibility for you—and it all begins with taking that first step.