finding the right therapist

Finding the Right Therapist: Part 1

How to Find a Therapist

So you have decided that you want to talk to someone. Congratulations! That’s the hardest part! Yet choosing a therapist can still feel like a daunting task. There are all sorts of questions about how to find the right therapist.

How on earth can you narrow the search?!? Should you get a referral from your doctor, a family member or a trusted friend? Who is qualified to provide the kind of professional help you are seeking? Is one therapeutic approach better? 

You’ve heard of CBT, DBT, EFT, AEDP, IFST—the endless alphabet soup of therapy can be needlessly confusing! This is all on top of what is an understandable ambivalence or even resistance you may have about starting therapy in the first place.

So where to begin? 

Addressing practical matters in finding a therapist is a great place to start. Direct your search to providers that meet both your mental health needs and financial requirements. 

If you have insurance, what does it cover? Some insurance policies limit coverage to in-network providers. Others will cover out-of-network providers at a specific percentage of reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses. Are you limited to a certain number of sessions?

Financial barriers to therapy are real. If this is a constraining factor for you, you might also try to find a therapist who offers a sliding scale. Or you can look for intern therapists in their final training phases. Interns are under the direct guidance of a fully-licensed supervisor (hurrah, two heads for the price of one!) and often have services offered at a significantly reduced rate.

The types of professionals that provide therapy include counselors, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners.

All therapists, regardless of professional category, must be licensed by their respective state boards. Licensing ensures that mental health professionals meet minimum educational, experience and ethical standards. If using online platforms to narrow your search, seek out ones like Psychology Today that verify valid, current state licensure before listing therapists on their site.

You can also check with the therapist’s relevant state board, both for a valid license and to see if they have had any infractions. For example, you can verify my licensing as an LGPC in Maryland with the Maryland Board of Professional Counselors & Therapists And in DC with the District of Columbia Board of Professional Counseling

This highlights the increasingly important issue of location.

A therapist must be licensed in the state in which the client receives services. If I see a client in our office in Rockville, I am required to have a valid, current license in Maryland. If I see that same client for tele-health who is now located in their DC home, I must also be licensed in DC to provide therapy for the client. These guidelines have been somewhat relaxed under specific COVID circumstances, but normally limit where you can find a therapist.

Ok, so now let’s say that you have narrowed it down to a few therapists under consideration. Next, check out their websites!

Get a feel for the values of the practice. Read clinicians’ bios to get to know their specific areas of expertise, training, and their personality. Read their blogs, just like these, to get to know them better (that’s partly why we write these!) Check out the FAQ’s.

Many mental health providers offer a free initial phone consultation, like the Montgomery County Counseling Center team. Take advantage!!

online therapy cartoon with therapist detangling thoughts inside client's head

This is an excellent opportunity to get a feel for the practice or the therapist. Ask yourself, “Did I connect with them? Did I feel heard? Did they offer me anything helpful that gives me confidence that they can help me?” You can also cover practical issues—in-person vs. online therapy, scheduling availability, billing, cancellation policy, and so forth.

Make sure to cover some therapeutic considerations. You might inquire about their experience with your primary concern, any specific, meaningful population or demographic you belong to, whether they specialize with children, adolescents, adults, couples and families, and about theoretical orientation.

Your therapist should be able to explain their orientation and how it would apply in your work. I would also expect comprehensive training in specific intervention models relevant to your circumstances. It is entirely reasonable to ask about the empirical basis for any proposed approach. Take the time here to pause and consider how the therapists’ perspectives and explanations sit with you. 

I realize this doesn’t always make the cut for “how to find a therapist,” but I would ask your potential therapist:

“Have you ever engaged in your own therapy?

This is a MAJOR factor. Even if the therapist is self-aware, I do not recommend seeing a therapist that has not done their own work. A therapist that has not done so is at increased likelihood of issues with boundaries, blind-spots and unmanaged counter-transference.

This goes hand in hand with the therapist that is a life-long learner. Sure, continuing education is a required part of licensure renewal. But I’d like to know that my therapist actively engages in keeping up with ongoing research and new approaches in the mental health field. 

Stay tuned for PART 2, where I will get into the relational and process factors to consider when selecting a therapist. “What to look out for in your therapist?” These are the “oh yeah” elements important to notice when engaging a therapist. In fact, this is the stuff that most predicts positive outcomes.

About The Author

Sabrina Gibb is a Maryland and DC licensed graduate professional counselor and psychotherapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center.  She has completed Level 1 and 2 training in Emotion-Focused Therapy and recently completed initial training in Emotion-Focused Family Therapy. She supports individual, couples and family clients by guiding them to recognize and transform painful emotions, behavior and dynamics—freeing them to pursue a more fulfilling life and relationships. Sabrina is currently accepting new clients at MCCC.

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