How to find the right therapist?

Thinking about therapy? Finding the right therapist is an important first step.

If you’re looking into therapy, finding the right therapist can take some time. But it is definitely worth the effort.

According to Dr. Cary B. Shames, chief medical officer and vice president at Sharp Health Plan, the term “therapist” is often used for many types of mental health professionals. The care they provide can be similar, with some distinct differences:

  • Therapists and counselors help resolve issues with thoughts, emotions and relationships. They are likely to treat conditions such as behavioral problems, stress, anxiety and depression.
  • Licensed clinical social workers provide a wide variety of emotional and mental health services, including substance abuse treatment and therapy, and are well-trained in case management.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can diagnose mental health conditions, prescribe and monitor medications, and perform medical tests to help decide specific needs.
  • Psychologists can provide individual or group therapy and do not prescribe medication. They may have specialized training in different types of therapeutic treatment.

“While credentials are important to keep in mind, a good therapist is someone with whom you can feel comfortable, safe and connected,” says Dr. Shames. “That connection is vital to not only building an effective patient-therapist relationship, but also to aligning on the goals of your treatment and your plans to achieve those goals.”

When you’re searching for a therapist who can help you long-term, Dr. Shames recommends you follow these five tips:


Think about your needs.

  • Focus your search by writing down your main concerns and what you want to get out of therapy.
  • Track any symptoms, including feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in hobbies.
  • Determine what is important to you in a therapist, such as distance from your home or ability to hold virtual visits; ability to prescribe medication; experience working with people based on gender, language, racial background, sexual orientation, faith, trauma or other dimensions of identity; and treatment methods offered.

Do your homework.

  • Check your health insurance plan policy to see if you need a referral from your primary care physician before seeking mental health services.
  • Look up mental health providers in your health insurer’s provider directory and identify at least three providers you think might be a good fit for you.
  • If you don’t have health insurance, community centers and public libraries often have phone numbers for local resources. You can also ask a trusted friend for referrals or look into school or work-based programs.

Call to make an appointment.

  • Take deep breaths if you feel nervous and remember your reasons for seeking help.
  • Check to make sure they accept your insurance. Ask what you are expected to pay for the appointment or how much the cost will be if the therapist offers services on a sliding scale.
  • Make an appointment, even if the next available opening is months away, and cancel it if you find someone else who can help you sooner.
  • Confirm if the appointment will be in person or virtual. For virtual appointments, ask about the technical requirements.

Ask the right questions.

  • Write down questions about things that are important to you before your appointment. For instance, the therapist’s experience dealing with your concerns; how soon treatment is expected to be effective; whether they can prescribe medication if needed; and what happens if treatment doesn’t seem to be working.

Go with your gut.

  • Pay extra attention to your experience during your appointment — do you feel relaxed, accepted, heard, safe and respected?
  • Know that it’s OK if the first therapist does not feel like the best match for you — contact the next person on your list and keep looking.

“It takes patience and perseverance to find the right therapist,” says Dr. Shames. “The right person can help you learn to deal with mental health matters and improve your well-being for the rest of your life.”

If you feel you can't wait weeks or months to talk to someone, help is available. Dr. Shames advises you to consider using other resources in the meantime, such as peer support groups offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego or other mental health resources in the community. However, if you or a loved one is in crisis, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HELLO” to 741741.

Get behavioral health support

No referral is needed for you to access outpatient therapy with an in-network provider.

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