How to choose the right therapist for your situation can be a difficult question to answer. Most people don’t take the decision to seek counselling lightly. They often invest a lot of thought in the process. It is common for folks to try to do whatever they can on their own before seeking professional assistance. So making the decision to let someone into your intimate thoughts and feelings at a time when you are vulnerable and struggling is a big deal. Here are a few things that will hopefully make the process a little easier.
Is this the time to seek help?
Before you get to the point of deciding how to choose the right therapist you need to decide now is the time to get help. Over the last few years there has been a lot of change in terms of how open people are to counselling. However, some people are still tentative. It could be because they are self-conscious and believe they should be able to sort out their own issues. For others, they worry about how accepted it may be in their culture, family, workplace, friend group… But these things are shifting from generation to generation so more people may be considering getting help now than in the past.
You will need to carefully consider whether you are personally ready to make some changes to your life. A good therapist can be a priceless guide to help make it happen. But you will need to be the one doing the hard work. If you are contemplating making some changes but not sure how to proceed having at least an initial consult with a therapist may help you clarify what your next move will be.
What to look for
Once you feel comfortable with the idea of accepting help it is time to consider your specific preferences on who to see for therapy. Here are a few characteristics to use as a starting point when deciding who is right for you.
When choosing a therapist one of the primary considerations is whether their style is a good fit for you. When I’m referring to style here it is more about a personality match than clinical techniques. Consider whether they are very structured or more laid back. Do they have a direct or even confrontational approach to issues or a soft, nondirective style? Consider not just what you like but what you need to change. They may or may not be the same thing.
Not that you are shopping for a best friend but things like similar sense of humour or ways of approaching situations may make it seem more natural for you. After all, you need to feel comfortable sharing your intimate thoughts and feelings with this person. This is what researchers call the therapeutic alliance and it is a key factor in how successful your therapy will be. Sometimes this may even be more critical than the actual interventions etc. that are used as part of the process.
You will want to choose a therapist who specialises in the issue you want to work on. Not all therapists are equally experienced or trained in all areas of psychology. Some only work with kids, couples, women, work issues, disabilities, trauma etc. So, making sure the person you are considering is familiar with the issue you want to work on is very important. Depending on how unique your situation is this may limit your options considerably. Some issues it is very easy to find a therapist who has expertise in that area. However, for other matters you may need to do some searching to find someone competent in that specific area. In a way, this is like finding an attorney / solicitor. Yes, they all went to law school but what they have done and studied after makes the difference between a corporate litigator, an environmental protection lawyer and a family lawyer.
Titles & Training
There are several different titles that are used by professionals who offer therapy. Many offer similar services regardless of the title used. (Some of my colleagues would cringe at this statement. However, for someone new to the field it is good to know there is a fair bit of overlap as well as differences between each.) Here is a quick overview of some of the titles and what that means for someone seeking help. These are generalisations but hopefully serve as a starting point to decipher the differences.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who also has speciality training in psychology. They often prescribe and manage medications as the treatment of choice. Some may have additional training in psychology to offer talk therapy also though this isn’t the norm.
A psychologist is a clinician with advanced training in conducting assessments, and therapy with complex situations. They may work with individuals who have experienced trauma, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, anxiety etc. In Australia, it is possible to become a psychologist by completing a master’s or doctorate degree. However, there is another pathway that allows someone who has a bachelor’s degree to become registered if they also complete a couple years of intensive training. This essentially means they are continuing their education under the close direction of the psychology board and a team of supervisors instead of a university.
A counsellor is a provider with training in therapy and relationship issues. They may have university training very much like a psychologist. However, this is not always the case. Some counsellors have completed a masters or doctorate others have completed a certificate program at a training institute. Depending on the extent of their formal training the complexity of the situation they would be well suited to address varies. You may see more people with training as a counsellor use specific titles like career counsellor, marriage counsellor, drug and alcohol counsellor, pastoral counsellor etc. In Australia, the titles of counsellor and therapist are not regulated. Which means there is no government standard stating whether someone is qualified to offer services to the public. The training standards are set by professional organisations. So, making sure the person you choose is affiliated with one of the major professional organisations for counsellors e.g. PACFA can provide a sense of security regarding their qualifications.
A social worker is a professional with training in social systems. They may work at a high level with community programs or family systems to bring about change for the benefit the greater good. Depending on their academic program some also have specific training in mental health counselling as well. Being an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker is the specialty designation in Australia for those who have advanced training in counselling.
How do I find a therapist?
So now you have an idea what you want to look for. You need to know where to look. Now days the internet is a great resource. There are a few good therapist directories (e.g. Therapy Tribe) that allow you to quickly see an overview of several therapists in one place. You can typically sort by things like location, specialty area, gender etc. to narrow down your choices. You can also go directly to the professional associations for the type of provider you prefer to see e.g. psychologist, counsellor, social worker… Another option is to have a look at the therapist’s website. This often gives you a clearer picture of their style, personality etc. since it was designed by them. As great as technology can be it is still hard to beat a recommendation from someone you trust. It might be worth having a quick chat with a couple of your friends, your doctor etc. They will know you well and may even have personal experience with that therapist they could share with you.
Create a shortlist
It is a good idea to make a shortlist of two or maybe three therapists you may want to see. Once you have narrowed down your choices it is a good idea to then contact them directly. Most are happy to have a quick chat with you before booking an appointment. It is totally ok for you to book an initial session with a couple of them. It is okay to tell them you are interviewing therapists. They will appreciate you are taking your choice seriously. You might let them know you do plan to make a choice in near future so they know what to expect in terms of you making a commitment also. Then it is down to your personal taste and reaction after meeting with them who you choose. A wall full of credentials doesn’t automatically mean they are right for you. This is where the personality and style will help you distinguish between two well qualified candidates.
“There are some people you like immediately, some whom you think you might learn to like in the fullness of time, and some that you simply want to push away from you with a sharp stick.”
― Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
If you are into research here is a good study on therapeutic alliance.