So, you’ve decided it is time to try some counseling, but now you are faced with the task of finding a counselor. Where do you begin? What do you look for?
There are thousands of mental health professionals in the Austin area and a few tips for searching can help narrow those options down. I hope to answer the most commonly asked questions about how to find a therapist.
What’s with all those letters?
I use counselor, clinician, and therapist interchangeably and I am referring to a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or a Psychologist (PhD).
LPCs, LMFTs and LCSWs are all therapists that have completed a masters degree, passed an examination and have finished 3,000 hours of supervised experience. A psychologist has earned a doctoral degree, passed an examination and has gained 2 years of supervised experience. A psychologist is also able to do formal psychological testing. In addition, there are clinicians available under each of these licenses that are still being supervised and can offer their services for lower rates. There are fabulous clinicians carrying all of these licenses and all of them can provide psychotherapy.
Where do I look?
I recommend therapy directory sites, like psychologytoday.com, therapyden.com, or inclusivetherapists.com as a great place to start your search. Instead of a list of addresses and phone numbers like an insurance company gives, a directory site provides a photo, summary of services and practice details.
What do I look for?
Next, search for the criteria that matters the most to you. Do you need an in-network provider to use your insurance? Do you need a sliding fee? Looking for a lgbtq affirmative therapist or one who specializes in working with children? Perhaps you need a location close to your home or work because of a tight schedule. Do you prefer a bilingual counselor or a Christian counselor?
Some familiar with counseling already know they want a particular technique or style, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, family systems, or EMDR. You can learn more about different therapy approaches here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types. You can also specify the types of issues you are facing, like anxiety, depression or trauma. Choosing a few criteria like these can help shrink the list of possible counselors.
Now that you have narrowed the pool down some, take a look at each of the possible therapists and pick your favorite 3. You may not know why you like them yet. It could be something they said in their profile or even their picture. Visit their websites to find more information on each of them.
Call or email each of these 3 therapists to show your interest in their counseling services. It is customary to reach a voicemail system when you call, and calls or emails are typically returned within 24 hours. This is the time to see if they are accepting new clients, if they have an appointment time that works with your schedule and verify all of the information you have read. For example, are they still accepting your insurance? Have the rates changed? If the therapist is unable to work with you, they usually provide a few referrals.
The most important quality to look for in a therapist is whether or not you have a “gut” feeling when you talk to them. Do you feel comfortable? Do they seem to be listening? Do you feel judged? Would you be willing to sit down with them and tell them more about your life in person?
The foundation of counseling is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client. It is important to find someone who you feel you can open up to and be vulnerable with. Short phone calls and emails will probably not answer this question for you completely, but you can start to get a sense of comfort with the person even in your first couple of interactions. Use those intuitive reactions even if you don’t know why you are having them.
Finally, go ahead and make an appointment. It is difficult to figure out during initial contacts if you will truly feel safe with this person and if they have the kind of tools that will most help you. Sometimes the looking and interviewing can be quite a detour or distraction from actually starting your counseling work. If the first session rubs you the wrong way, set up an appointment with the next counselor on your list. I encourage you to keep going and looking. It often requires meeting with a few counselors to find one that you feel comfortable moving forward with.
What about referrals?
You may also ask others you know for a referral. If you do, I would still do my own research on that person. That therapist may have been a great match for your friend or colleague, but it doesn’t mean it will be a great match for you. I do not recommend seeing the same counselor as your best friend or family member, but casual acquaintances and coworkers seem to be common referral sources. The highest quality referrals usually come from other professionals. If you call a counselor you were referred to but then decide not to use them, ask that counselor for other names you might call. Most counselors have a list of therapists whose work we trust and who we refer to often.
Can I change my mind?
Yes! Sometimes a therapist seems like a good fit in the beginning, but then something happens that no longer allows us to feel safe or we don’t feel like the therapy is the right approach for our goals. It is okay to change counselors. Your needs are the most important and it will not hurt the therapist’s feelings to terminate the relationship. If it does, that is just further validation that the therapy needs to end. Even when there has not been an ethical violation, sometimes your needs will change. Although the therapist was helpful for a while, you may now want a different perspective or style.
However, some mild conflict, disappointment, frustration or other tear in the therapeutic relationship is not necessarily a reason to run the other direction. I strongly encourage you to talk to your therapist about these feelings and disruptions. Often part of what brings us to therapy is difficulty navigating conflict, emotional reactions and interpersonal relationships. When these moments happen in therapy is when some of the greatest learning, growth and healing can happen!
Best of luck on your search!