The Beginner's Guide to Finding a Therapist

·10 min read
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The decision to begin therapy can be a major milestone on the path to mental wellness. But it's a milestone that can often feel difficult to reach for those confronting the often convoluted process of where to find and what to look for in a therapist — and it can feel even more difficult to do in the midst of a mental health challenge.

Trying to find a practitioner who you feel comfortable with, who is culturally sensitive and specializes in your area of need — not to mention, who takes insurance — may seem more intimidating than the notion of actually opening up to someone.

Fortunately, therapy has never been more widely accepted or accessible, thanks to the rise in telehealth practitioners who began offering digital sessions during the pandemic.

Whether you're looking to see someone online or in the real world, it's important to keep in mind that there's no such thing as a "perfect" therapist. Much like with dating, it's a good idea to have a flexible checklist of what you're looking for and to keep an open mind — but also to listen to your gut.

Whatever your goals are — whether coping with trauma, dealing with anxiety or just talking through a bad day at work — there are some general guidelines that can help you find a therapist that you're comfortable with, which is essential to making therapy work for you.

In order to help you get started, we spoke to two therapists who walked us through everything you need to know about finding the right therapist, from where to look, to an appropriate amount of time to "try them out" and what you can expect if it's a good fit.

Reconsider your preconceived notions about therapy

Therapy is for everyone, from celebrities to "normal" people. You don't have to be going through something in order to start therapy — in general, talking to a therapist regularly is a great way to take care of your mental health. And if you have an existing relationship with a therapist, you won't have to face the uphill battle of seeking a good fit while in the middle of a mental health struggle.

"I think people tend to think about mental health only in a crisis, but mental health is something that we can proactively take care of by focusing on things like setting boundaries on our time and energy, paying attention to our physical activity and sleep hygiene, and making sure that we surround ourselves with supportive others," says Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based licensed psychologist and host of the mental health podcast Therapy for Black Girls. "We cannot pour from an empty cup, so, when we take good care of ourselves, it enables us to do a better job of showing up for ourselves and our friends and loved ones."

Identify your goals

Before you begin searching for a therapist, it's a good idea to ask yourself what you're hoping to get out of therapy. Are there certain issues you're looking to address? Identifying these will help you to narrow down your search terms on databases and to better articulate your needs to potential therapists during consultations.

Of course, it can be difficult to figure out what your needs are, particularly in periods of crisis. Luckily, that's where a good therapist comes in.

"My biggest question I often ask clients in our first session is "'Why therapy now?'" says Detroit-based therapist and mental health advocate Kelly Houseman, LPC. "Much of the time people don't really know what exactly they need or even want out of therapy and that is what we figure out together."

RELATED: Let's Talk About It: All About Mental Health

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people seeking therapy

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Where to look for a therapist

There are two primary ways to find a therapist: through a referral or through their website.

For the former, asking friends for recommendations can be a great place to start; they may have done a few consultations themselves and can perhaps point you in the right direction.

Online, national databases streamline the process of finding a therapist who is equipped to work on your specific issues. Sites like Psychology Today's database of mental health professionals feature photos of therapists, along with information on their background and areas of specialty. It's also possible to filter based on criteria like whether or not they take your insurance or offer telehealth services.

Historically, there have been more barriers to entry for Black clients looking to start therapy, Dr. Joy says, due to a variety of structural issues that include "a shortage of culturally responsive therapists accepting new clients, challenges with affording the costs of therapy, a lack of access to health insurance, and cultural stigmas that stem from rhetoric like, 'therapy is for crazy people' or 'you just need to pray.'"

(This is part of a larger trend for people of color as a whole: 86% of psychologists are white, according to a 2020 APA study, which is among the structural barriers that can make it challenging for people of color to seek help.)

A handful of databases have sprung up to address that, connecting those seeking help with culturally sensitive therapists who work with a diverse client list. Some such sites include Therapy For Black Girls, Therapy For Black Men, National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network and Inclusive Therapists.

What to look for in a therapist

"It's good practice to spend some time reading through a therapist's website to learn more about what kind of clients they work with and what areas they specialize or have expertise in," says Dr. Joy. Some key things to look for are their education, certifications and areas of specialization.

"A therapist that is inclusive and culturally responsive still might not be a good fit if they're not experienced in working with clients who have presenting concerns like yours," Dr. Joy explains.

Certain credentials you should look for include: licensed professional counselors (LPC), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed social worker (LSW) or a licensed clinical psychologist (LCP), among others. To verify a potential therapist's credentials, you can look them up on the Department of Consumer Affairs website for your state.

RELATED: Hailey Bieber Says Therapy Was 'a Game Changer' for Her Mental Health

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people seeking therapy

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What to ask during the consultation

Most therapists will offer an initial 15- or 30-minute session free of charge so you can decide if they seem like a good fit. Of course, it can be incredibly difficult to gauge just how much of your life you may be willing to divulge to someone in less than an hour, but it's at least a good indicator of their style and a chance for you to ask questions of your own.

"The consultation is a great opportunity to verify and ask follow-up questions to some of the things you've read online and feel out if there is any synergy between you and the therapist," says Dr. Joy. "Some questions you may want to ask during the consultation include: Have you worked with someone with my presenting concerns? Do you have a caseload of culturally diverse clients?"

Adds Houseman, "A great way to start is asking what a typical session would be like with them and ask what approach they use in therapy. It is also important to ask how they'll be able to track your progress in therapy so you can have some benchmarks to track growth."

While it's important to remember that "the intro call isn't a therapy session," Houseman says, you should "leave having a general sense of what it might be like working with them and ideally a hope that your connection can be the start of some life changes."

She also advocates shopping around for a few therapists to gauge your personal chemistry: "I always encourage potential clients to interview a couple therapists because, like in the dating scene, you have to know what is out there and land on the one who just clicks."

RELATED VIDEO: Lizzo Gets Candid About the Power of Therapy in Her life

How to know if it's a good match

After a few consultations, it's time to move forward with one therapist — one with whom you establish a regular cadence, be that once a week or once a month.

"A great therapist will be a non-judgmental, sympathetic listening ear," says Houseman. "If you leave your sessions feeling seen, heard and empowered, things are going right. Change often does not happen immediately but there should be some overall goals and steps that you can take to get there to make sure you are on the right path."

Feeling comfortable enough to open up about your deepest, darkest secrets takes time; Houseman suggests sticking out two or three sessions before moving on. But if you get the feeling it's not a fit, remember that you are never obliged to stay, no matter how long you've been seeing someone.

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people seeking therapy

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What to know about the cost of therapy

Another roadblock to therapy for many can be the cost. On average, a one-hour session costs between $65 to $200; in metropolitan areas like New York, a session can run you upwards of $250.

Subscription-based online services, like Talkspace or BetterHelp, offer lower monthly rates, with individual 60-minute virtual sessions averaging at $65.

While many therapists don't take insurance (which is due, in large part, to the extremely difficult nature of getting reimbursed by insurance companies, according to NPR), it is possible to find someone in-network. Most insurance companies offer a directory to locate an in-network provider on their website. (These are not always reliably updated, according to The Boston Globe, but are still a useful jumping-off point.)

If your therapist does take insurance, you will likely have a copay for each session, for which you can typically use a health savings account (HSA), if you have one.

Employers may also offer an employee assistance plan (EAP), which is a free benefits program for employees that can include confidential counseling for personal stressors which may be negatively impacting their performance at work.

Another cost-effective option is sliding scale payments, which are prorated based on your income. Even if a therapist you're interested in doesn't advertise that as an option, it's worthwhile to ask if they would consider it.

If you are unable to find a therapist within your budget, consider asking about shorter or less frequent sessions (i.e., 45-minutes session, or seeing your provider every other week).

What to do if you can't find a therapist

Even pre-pandemic, the demand for therapists and mental health professionals far outweighed the number of people in the field. That disparity has only grown over the past two years, with a surge of people turning to therapy to help cope during the pandemic. Wait lists are often long and seem to be getting longer.

If you are struggling to find or afford a therapist, there are still a number of options available:

Consider seeing an intern or someone in training — they will always be under the tutelage of a licensed provider. To find trainees near you, check The Association of Psychology Training Clinics' directory of training centers.

Group therapy may also be a useful option — it tends to be more affordable and can often be easier to find than individual sessions. Ask your primary care doctor or check with your insurance provider for information on local group therapy services.

people seeking therapy
people seeking therapy

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Wait lists, while frustrating, can sometimes move faster than anticipated — and even when they don't, it's better to be on them than to feel stuck at square one in your search. Put yourself on a wait list for any provider that feels like a potential fit.

Consider online therapy. App-based providers like Talkspace and BetterHelp often have a wider range of available (and affordable) licensed providers to choose from than traditional directories.

There are also a range of mental health support services, nonprofits and volunteer organizations that offer free support groups for grief, trauma, domestic violence, mental illness and more, such as Mental Health America and The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).

If your needs are urgent, do not downplay their immediacy. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.