Choosing the right therapist to help you with your mental and emotional health can be tough. What you’re seeking help for is, by definition, personal. And you have a lot of options when it comes to the type of mental health professional you choose.
“Your job is to find somebody who maps onto the concerns you have, somebody you feel comfortable with, and somebody who you believe will be helpful and supportive to you,” says Lynn Bufka, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association (APA), where she works on healthcare policy issues and improving mental health care delivery.
You’re looking for someone with both the professional expertise to counsel you on whatever you’re coping with, as well as a personality that clicks with you. Plus, that provider needs to be accessible to you, accepting new patients or clients, and affordable.
So, how do you find the provider that’s right for you?
How to Start Your Search for a Therapist
Deciding you want to talk with someone about your mental and emotional health is the first step. Next, it’s time to think about what you want to talk about, what you want to get out of therapy, and what type of provider might be best to seek out.
Also, keep in mind that different mental health professionals have different sets of expertise. If you’re grappling with issues like trust or infidelity in your relationship, a marriage counselor may be your top choice, or if you’re dealing with substance abuse, divorce or separation affecting your home life, family therapy may be your preference.
Once you decide what type of provider or specialist you want to see, you’ll have to see who in your area fits that bill. You can:
- Get a referral. Asking someone you trust (such as your doctor or a family member) is a good place to start. According to a nationally representative survey of 1,021 Americans published in 2018, among those who sought therapy, 39 percent were referred from their primary care physician to a local therapist, while 19 percent received a recommendation from a friend.Even if you don’t think you will require medical treatment, tell your doctor about your symptoms, Dr. Bufka says. They can help you decide if there is a certain type of provider who might be better for you.
- Use a reliable online database. Several mental health organizations have up-to-date databases of licensed therapists searchable by geographical location. With these tools, you can sort through therapists based on your ZIP code or city or state, and filter based on other parameters, such as whether you want a male or female therapist or one who provides telemedicine or in-person counseling. Large databases include:
- American Psychological Association Psychologist Locator
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Therapist Locator
- Mental Health America Affiliate Resource Center
- Psychology Today Therapy Directory
- National Association of Social Workers HelpPRO Therapist Finder
- Ask your insurance company for a mental health provider list. If you have private health insurance, Medicaid, or coverage provided through your job, call your insurer’s information number to connect with therapists in your area who accept your insurance plan.
How Do I Find a Culturally Competent Provider?
You may be looking for a therapist who shares your background or understands specific challenges you’re facing, such as a chronic illness or disability.
“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to therapy, and people need to feel empowered by this. A lot of people are seeking out someone from their own community who understands the challenges a person of color may experience, for example,” says Christine Crawford, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
If you’re looking for a therapist of a certain ethnicity, Dr. Crawford — who is also associate medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — suggests using Innopsych, a database that allows users to filter therapists by ethnicity.
If you’re looking for a therapist who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, try the Association of LGBTQ+ Psychiatrists Online Referral System or the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.
NAMI provides a list of therapy resources for people who identify as Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indigenous Americans, and LGBTQ.
You can find therapists that specialize in specific conditions too. Organizations that either have a directory of therapists or that can help in the referral process include:
How to Decide Who to See
Now you’ve got a few names (or maybe several). How do you decide which one to go with? To narrow your scope:
- Check the provider’s credentials.?Right off the bat, make sure the therapists on your shortlist are appropriately credentialed, says Lynn Linde, EdD, chief knowledge officer at the American Counseling Association. Many therapists will list their license, degree, or other training certifications (such as a PhD, MD, or LCSW), and areas of specialization prominently on their websites. If they don’t, ask. You can also check the licensing status of any mental health professional in your state via its licensing board. Start by visiting the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
- Consider the provider’s areas of expertise.?Are you looking for bereavement counseling after the death of a loved one, or do you need family therapy to cope with conflict in the household or substance abuse? See if the therapists on your short list focus on the things you want help with. You’ll notice some providers specialize in treating specific conditions like PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, or panic disorders, while others focus more on grief, substance abuse, or other issues. “Counseling is very much driven by the client and what the client wants to work on. You have autonomy on what you want to address and your counselor,” Dr. Linde says.
- Consider what types of treatment a therapist uses.?Therapists employ lots of different types of therapeutic approaches with clients. If negative thinking is affecting your daily life, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a type of therapy designed to help you change your thought patterns to stop maladaptive thoughts or behaviors — may help, Linde says. Or if you’re grappling with a phobia, exposure therapy may be best. If there is a treatment that you suspect might work for you, check if a provider is trained in it and offers it.
- Google the provider.?Many providers have their own website or an online bio where you can read more about them. Online profiles may offer a sense of whether you’ll feel comfortable with a provider based on their experience or areas of expertise.
- Inquire about a screening call.?Linde suggests setting up a 10-minute screening on the phone, so you can get to know who your mental health provider may be. Your goal is to decipher if you feel comfortable talking to the person on the other end of the line, if they can address the issues you’re hoping to work on, and if you both agree to the style of therapy he or she provides. Call the provider’s office and ask if the therapist offers screener interviews or an initial introductory chat to see if the provider is a good fit, Linde says. APA suggests asking a provider about how much experience they have helping other people with the types of issues you’re facing.Other questions to consider asking the provider are:
- If I need medication, can you prescribe or refer me to someone who does?
- How can I help in my recovery?
- How soon should I start feeling better?
- What do you do if I do not start feeling better in the typical timeframe?
Other Logistics to Consider When Picking a Therapist
- Costs Can you afford the fees your therapist charges per session, and does he or she accept your insurance? It’s important to know the costs you’ll be responsible for up front, Linde says. Ask about payment options, too. (Some providers offer sliding pay scales, for example, to make therapy more affordable to individuals with lower incomes.)
- Availability Are the therapists on your shortlist accepting new clients? If they aren’t, you may be put on a waitlist. In your initial chat, double check to see how soon you can begin sessions, Crawford says.
- Accessibility If you know you’re leaning towards weekly Zoom sessions instead of commuting to your therapist’s office every week, zero in on providers who offer telemedicine, Liz Morrison, LCSW, a New York City–based psychotherapist and owner of Liz Morrison Therapy.
- Proximity If you prefer in-person counseling or want the option to drop into your therapist’s office, you may decide to focus on providers who are in your neighborhood or practice somewhere you can commute to. Factor in issues like parking, rush hour traffic, and a therapist’s office hours when considering which provider is the right one for you, Morrison says.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Fluckiger C, Del Re AC, Wampold BE, Horvath AO. The Alliance in Adult Psychotherapy: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis. Psychotherapy. 2018.
- Better Relationships With Patients Lead to Better Outcomes. American Psychological Association. November 1, 2019.
- Americans Feel Good About Counseling. Barna Research. February 27, 2018.
- Finding a Mental Health Professional. National Alliance of Mental Illness. 2022.
- How to Choose a Psychologist. American Psychological Association. October 17, 2019.
- Finding the Right Therapist. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
- 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Therapist. Harvard Medical School. November 16, 2015.