How to Pick a Therapist That's Right For You

By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

First things first: everyone can benefit from therapy. 🤗

Doesn’t matter if you’re feeling good, bad, or anything in between or beyond. There’s no problem too small or too big (you don’t even need a problem that you want to solve, really 🤷) where talking it out with someone can’t help. So never be discouraged from wanting to try therapy!

But how to pick a therapist can feel discouraging. 😞 There are all those different words like psychologist, counselor, psychiatrist that require research. Plus, at the end of the day, therapy is a very personal thing. What you’re looking for and what’s right for you will ultimately depend on, well, 🫵

So, we’re here to help narrow things down and give you some pointers on how to pick a therapist that’s right for you. Your perfect match is out there!

Why now?

If you feel like you’ve been hearing people talk about therapy more, you’re absolutely right. ✅ In 2004, just 13% of adults said they’d visited a therapist. In 2022, that number jumped up to 23%.

Which makes sense for a couple reasons. People are seeking therapy more, sure, but therapy is also more available than ever thanks to telehealth 📱💻(so over the phone, or by video call). The pandemic made people want therapy more than ever, with an unintended side effect: therapy mostly became available virtually! 🫂

So what’s out there?

  • If you’re wondering how to pick a therapist, you first need to understand some new vocab words. 📚 “Therapy” refers to “psychotherapy,” which is just a more official way to say the same thing. Something to keep in mind is that ‘therapist’ is kind of the umbrella word for anyone that is licensed to offer therapy, regardless of their job title. They’re able to talk with you, helping you work through challenges you might be experiencing.

Still, knowing who does what is useful when you’re figuring out how to pick a therapist. Check out the different types of licensed therapists (in most US states) below:

  • 🎓 Psychologists often have the most formal training in psychotherapy and have a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) in psychology. They are more likely to be involved in diagnosing mental health conditions and providing therapy.
  • ⚕️ Psychiatrists are physicians (doctors with a MD or DO degree) that diagnose and treat mental health conditions. The difference here is that psychiatrists can prescribe medicine, order tests, and offer therapy. However, most focus on making diagnoses and prescribing medications. They’re more likely to work in the hospital.
  • 🗣️Counselors are mental health clinicians with a master’s degree-level training, and they offer therapy. Counselors usually focus on treating instead of diagnosing, and don’t prescribe medicine.
  • 🤗 Social Workers specialize in helping people through difficult life situations and connect people to resources. Some, but not all, social workers are therapists. Social workers that offer therapy usually must have a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Just like counselors, they usually treat, less often diagnose, and don’t prescribe meds.
  • 👨‍👦‍👧 Marriage and Family Therapists are similar to counselors. They have a master’s degree, and offer psychotherapy to couples, families, and individuals.

Where do you find a therapist?

Alright, now that you have the basics down, let’s start the actual search!

To do that, you should know what you want to talk about. What type of therapy do you need, and what type of medical professional will be able to help you? 🤔 If you’re dealing with issues in your marriage, a marriage counselor might be your best bet, but if you’re just feeling things out, a more general therapist could be a better fit.

Once you know what your goal is, you’ll have to know where to look. 👀 You can get a referral (from your doctor, or someone you trust, like a family member who has had a positive experience with a therapist).

You can also use an online database to help your search. The internet is your friend! Not only is it convenient, but an online search done by yourself is anonymous 💗, which might help put you at ease.

Here are a few to get you started:

What do I look for in a therapist?

So, you know what types of therapists are out there and how to find them. Now it’s up to you to figure out which is the right match. It could be down to something as simple as whether they match your sense of humor. 😆

It’s kind of like job hunting, really. You’re narrowing down your options based on:

  • Credentials: Make sure they have the right fit for the job. Check out their license, degree, or training certifications (you can also check out your state’s licensing board for that info if they don’t have it listed).
  • Area of expertise: Many therapists will have a specialty. Maybe it’s couple’s counseling. Maybe it’s bereavement. Whatever it is, you might want to make it match what you’re looking for.
  • Treatment types: Some treatments will be a better fit than others for you. Negative thoughts can be helped with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or exposure therapy could fit with a fear of something, like spiders. Finding the right treatment will help make sure the therapy is worth it.
  • Miscellaneous: We’re putting this here because you might have your own preferences that come into play. That could be gender, or religion, or some other background element that might make someone a better fit for you. Therapy is a super personal thing, so you can and should make sure they’re the right fit for you.

Of course, there are other things that come into play when thinking of how to pick a therapist. Cost 💸, availability, how close they are to you — all of these are the more nitty-gritty aspects of looking for a therapist, but they’re all super important.

Traditional versus digital

Now the question is — do you see a therapist in-person or online? 🧑‍🤝‍🧑 💻

There’s benefits and drawbacks to both. With online therapy, there’s of course the availability and accessibility. Imagine doing therapy while on your lunch 🍽️ break, especially if you work from home! The dream.

Online therapy also means:

  • Discreet: No one will see you go into or leave a therapist’s office.
  • Reasonable: Many therapists on virtual networks still take insurance! It’s no different than if you’re seen in person in that sense.
  • Connectivity: It’s not just the session itself, but also the access around it that might help you. That’s because online therapy might allow texting or setting up an emergency session anywhere.

What sets in-person therapy apart is that although less convenient, it can be more intensive. What we mean by that is it makes it easier for your therapist to use more tools to help you. Art 🎨, music 🎵, and play 🤾 therapy are all simpler to use in-person, and your therapist will also have an easier time picking up on nonverbal communication (though that’s not completely lost in video therapy).

At the end of the day, it’s up to you! Are you more attracted to the accessibility and convenience of online therapy? Or do you want to see someone face to face? It’s your choice. 😊

What will the first session be like?

Your first session is going to be more of an introduction. You’ll fill out some paperwork and likely answer some questions about your family history  👪, your relationship status 👨‍❤️‍👨, that sort of thing.

Then your therapist might ask you about what you’re trying to get out of therapy. What’s your goal? What are you working through right now that you need help with? 🗣️

It’s normal for it all to feel a little awkward at the start. We’re not used to opening up to others, especially complete strangers. You might also have questions for your therapist that’ll help put you at ease, like:

  • What experience level do you have?
  • How often should you expect to meet?
  • What methodologies will you use?
  • Is this a good fit? ? How long will treatment last?
  • How do you measure progress?
  • What if I disagree with the treatment?
  • How do you handle emergencies in between sessions?

Getting on the same page 📃 now will only set you up for success in future, especially if you have more specific needs. For example, if you are living with HIV, it’s helpful to check with your therapist about experiences they might have had with other people that have had a similar journey to yours. That way you can know if they’re going to treat you with the level of care and attention you deserve❣️

Same thing with other parts of your identity… for instance, if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community, make sure your therapist is open, accepting, and understanding. Unfortunately, there are even some therapists out there with ignorant beliefs. This rings true for all parts of your identity.

What if it’s not working out?

The important thing to remember is that you don’t need a good reason for deciding to not see your therapist anymore. If you don’t feel right, then stop and find someone else. You’re in charge. 💪

A big one is feeling judged or misunderstood. It might be difficult to identify what is making you feel that way, but if you are, then it might be time to go. You might also just not like them or feel like you aren’t sticking to your goals. Maybe they’re not culturally sensitive. They could also just not have the right tools to help you. 🤷

For some people, ending sessions with a therapist can feel like a breakup. 💔 Remember, these are professionals! They are used to it and want you to get the care you deserve (or, at least, they should). They’ll even want you to share why you’re going in a different direction. You can do that in-person or just over email, whatever works for you.

From there, your therapist might even help you find someone who’s a better fit, or you can go back to using directories or other referrals to find a new therapist. Just know you will find a therapist that’s right for you. You’ve got this!  👏

Help is out there

If you’re looking for more support, why not check out the Positive Peers app? There are resources for how to stay on top of your physical and mental wellness journey, if you’re looking for more help there.

For those ages 13-34 with HIV, the Positive Peers app is like a support group that’s always there for you. It’s a great way to chat with other people that are going through similar challenges as you are, and you might even help others, too! 🥰