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Swipe Right - How to Pick a Mental Health Counselor

Jan 2, 2023

Choosing a mental health therapist can be similar to using a dating app because both involve finding someone who meets your needs and preferences. The good news is you don’t have to worry about your own photo or if the other side is looking for a long term relationship. All joking aside, just like you might use a dating app to meet someone who shares your interests and values, you can use online directories or search engines to find therapists who specialize in the areas you want to address and who have the appropriate education and training.

In order to open up and establish true transparency, you must feel compatibility. It is necessary to feel comfortable with your therapist, including liking their appearance and tone of voice. I had a client who left a therapist because he wore too much cologne. She reported it was hard to share space with him. I met another client who left her previous therapist because she talked too softly and the client  had difficulty understanding her. Basically, you have to be able to relate to the person you are building trust with. If you cannot connect with the counselor on a basic level, you will probably not be able to build transparency. Although it’s the therapist’s job to build trust to make this happen, the synergy will happen naturally with someone who “gets you.” You may also want to consider getting recommendations from friends, family, or your primary care doctor. Here are some tips that may help you find a match:

Their Story

Just like it is our job to hear about how you have moved through life; when picking a therapist, it is interesting to read about their background.  Look for interesting bios that reflect not only education, but personal tidbits about the counselor.  If you come from a big family, it may be helpful to choose a therapist from a similar background. If you enjoy scuba diving, maybe find a counselor who also likes the ocean, etc. Is your counselor married? Do they have kids? What is the story of how a therapist became a therapist? All of these pieces of information give you a clearer picture on the therapist’s experiences, which help shape the way they look at things.  If their personality and approach align with your needs and preferences, it’s a strong indicator that you will be comfortable with them and easily build trust.

Down to Business

Once you find a counselor you deem to be a personal fit, you must consider some pragmatic factors, such as professional credentials, specializations,  location and availability, and cost.

Make sure the therapist is licensed to practice in your state and has the appropriate education and training.  Also, determine if the therapist has specific experience or training in the area you want to address, such as EMDR for trauma, or CBT for depression or anxiety. Having choices in modalities, like office visits or Telehealth are important to consider too.

If all of the above align, look into the practitioner’s location and availability.  Make sure the therapist’s office is convenient for you to get to, and consider whether they offer appointments at times that work for your schedule.  For some clients, weekend hours and after work hour visits are sometimes the only option.

Although a convenient location is a plus, it may not be the determining factor or a deal breaker- especially once a relationship is built.  I know a therapist who moved three times in two years (just within a range of a few miles), and most of his clientele followed him. This makes sense if you have established a trusting bond.  Regardless, the location must always feel safe and accessible to you, especially in the beginning of a therapeutic relationship.

The cost of a session is also an important consideration.  Does the counselor’s fees fit within your budget?  Is the counselor a provider for your insurance? To determine the latter, you can check your insurance website for a list of participating counselors.

Whether your therapist manages everything or has a support staff, you want the registration process to be as seamless as possible.  Quite often, a front desk will reflect a therapist’s personality or it may be a little opposite to balance out a therapist. Regardless, ask yourself if you can work with this team. If you like your counselor, you should also be comfortable with their administrative staff, as those individuals will be the ones helping you make your appointments and processing your claims/ payments.

Something to note: Self-pay only clinicians will probably have less congested waiting rooms than insurance-driven practitioners because the clientele will be streamlined. You may be offered more flexible hours and find more focused time available with this kind of clinician.  Remember to adjust your expectations to the setup you are choosing.  High volume practices will have a different waiting room energy. Regardless, you should always feel comfortable and be treated with care and respect.

Taking the Plunge

If all of the above requirements are met, I encourage you to make a few appointments to see if there is synergy. It will probably take 2-3 sessions to determine if there is true compatibility, although you will most likely get a strong indication after the first meeting.  Earlier, I light heartedly compared therapy to dating.  However, it’s important to clarify that they are not the same thing . While finding a trust-worthy counselor with whom you feel comfortable is important, the focus of therapy is on your mental health and well-being, not on building a personal relationship. Your therapist is not your friend, although the right one should always feel like there is an authentic caring bond. It’s important to choose a therapist who is professional and who can provide the support and guidance you need to address your mental health concerns.  A good therapist should also push you out of your comfort zone so you can grow. Who you choose to accompany you on this journey is a very personal choice and should be treated with careful consideration.

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