The importance of finding a good therapist – and why it's so difficult

Finding a good therapist can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack – next to impossible.

The truth? It is possible. It just might be more arduous than anticipated.

"As humans, we will always strive for a certain quality of connection and understanding," says Cecille Ahrens, a licensed clinical social worker at Transcend Therapy in California. "It's the 'X-Factor' – that deep sense of being heard and seen – that is so personal to the client, and that is so unique to therapy. This is what can make the process of finding the 'right' therapist very challenging."

It benefits you in the long run to take the time to find the best therapist, mental-health experts say. And even though you might want to give up after feeling discouraged, don't. The right fit exists.

"There are enough therapists out there that you don't need to settle," says psychologist Alice Shepard, of health care company Sesame.

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Signs you should seek therapy

Tens of millions of people in the U.S. struggle with their mental health, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, though it's estimated just half receive treatment.

But therapy isn't solely for people in crisis. It's helpful to visit or consult with a therapist before you're in crisis.

Pay attention to subtle signs like changes in mood, appetite, behaviors, outlook and social patterns, Ahrens says: "If you find yourself feeling 'off' for more than a few weeks, even when there might be a valid reason for the change, trust that."

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Some of these signs could indicate a mental-health issue – and you'll want to seek treatment, or at least a diagnosis, as soon as possible.

Taking the time to find the best therapist will ultimately benefit you in the long run, mental health experts say. Heed their words about the importance of a good therapist before you give up entirely.
Taking the time to find the best therapist will ultimately benefit you in the long run, mental health experts say. Heed their words about the importance of a good therapist before you give up entirely.

"Therapy can of course be helpful for folks struggling with symptoms of mental illness and (who) want help finding immediate relief from acute symptoms," says Alex Jenny, a licensed clinical social worker known as "The Drag Therapist."

You also don't need a reason to go to therapy.

"Your desire for self-development and self-growth is enough of a reason to speak to a professional," Ahrens says.

And more importantly, never feel like it's too late.

"Even if it takes you some time to decide to see a therapist, it's OK. You are where you are," Ahrens says. "It can often still be very helpful, no matter what age or stage of life you're in."

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What finding the right therapist looks like

Think of therapy like dating. Not all relationships flourish.

"You take your time getting to know someone and investing that time and energy, but have to be open to the possibility that it might not be the best fit," Jenny says.

Part of knowing whether you're a good fit requires that you share your whole self.

"If you're able to share early on, even if you say, 'this is something that I've experienced, I'd like to have the opportunity to explore it, but maybe not right now,' it helps the therapist to know that that's something that you will want to work on later," Shepard says. "They can hold it in mind and have more of a sense of who you are."

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Ask yourself questions about your therapist.

"Do you feel safe with this person?" Jenny says. "Do you trust this person? Then, I would ask yourself, are you getting what you need from this relationship?"

Ahrens adds: "Do you feel seen, supported, encouraged, empowered? Are you being challenged in a sensitive way? Are you seeing small and/or big improvements? Are you getting somewhere? Are you meeting your therapy goals?"

Watch out for bad therapist traits like reliability issues, unprofessional conduct, poor boundaries, a tendency to be judgmental or imposing their beliefs onto you, Ahrens says.

"Working with a bad therapist or a therapist you don't click with can ultimately cause more harm," Jenny says. "Be assertive in asking questions during consultations and with sharing what hasn't worked for you so far when speaking to potential new therapists."

Plus, a therapist may be great for you at one point in your life – like a partner – but might not work out over time.

"Once (the patient is) past that initial crisis, they might have other things that are more chronic, and they realize maybe the person they selected isn't the best fit," Shepard says.

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Why your relationship with your therapist is so important

Think about the kind of relationship you're building with a therapist, and you'll see it's as serious as picking a close friend or partner. And for good reason.

"You're talking and sharing the deepest parts of yourself," Shepard says. "Things that maybe you haven't even shared with friends or family."

You might benefit from someone specialized to handle your concerns – whether you're a member of the LGBTQ community, disability community or underrepresented racial or ethnic groups.

"It's like finding a hairstylist, but much more consequential," says Kristen Parisi, a writer and disability expert. Parisi has a spinal cord injury and PTSD which exacerbates her depression; rehabilitation centers may recommend specific counselors for folks in similar situations.

Remember, you don't have to settle.

"You're coming in, and you're meeting with a therapist, whether it's Zoom or in person, because you're looking to feel better," Shepard says. "Being able to click with someone, or to feel like you have a really good fit, just makes it so much easier to go into the things that maybe you never wanted to think about or have pushed far to the side."

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Tips for finding a therapist

Don't let stigma get in your way. Misconceptions about therapy loom, Shepard says, particularly for people of color. The pandemic is changing that. "COVID and its devastation has helped to move mental health into the forefront of just basic conversations," Shepard says.

Know what you're looking for. What kind of treatment are you looking for? Someone with a specific certification? "Someone who works in a niche will be more adept to meet your needs than someone who tries to help everyone – i.e., a therapist who advertises as working with clients experiencing depression vs. one who specializes in BIPOC perinatal depression," says Lauren Ross, of Texas Premarital Counseling.

Be prepared to power through directories. Whether it's through your workplace, insurance provider or Psychology Today, plenty of databases exist to get you started.

Consider finances. If you have health insurance, verify that your therapy will be covered (and if you pay out of pocket, make sure you can afford it). "If you are not using insurance and finances are an issue, see if the therapist would be willing to offer a reduced fee for their services," Ahrens says.

Do a consult first. Consider a phone screen before setting up an appointment to gauge someone's vibe. Also, Google is your friend. "You can see if there have been any concerning feedback or reviews that have been posted about them or the office they work at," Ahrens says.

Ask questions. "Don’t be afraid to ask the therapist as many questions as you need to feel confident you’ve found the right fit for treatment," says Amanda Maves, a therapist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "And If it’s a good therapist, they will have (a) sense of it not being a good fit and most likely will refer someone they know that may work better."

Advocate for yourself. "Therapy isn't always comfortable but it should always be safe; if you don't feel like you can be honest with your therapist, they probably won't be very helpful for you," Ross says.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Therapy can help. How to find the right mental health therapist