Choosing The Right Psychotherapist


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6 questions you should ask.

Have you ever considered seeking professional help to get through a difficult phase in life, relationships and emotional distress? If the answer is “yes” you are not the only one. Each year, millions of people make the decision to see a psychotherapist.

I am hopeful that in the 21st century, there is little, if any, taboo related to the use of such professional help.

You wouldn’t be ashamed to take your car to a mechanic if it’s having issues, would you? And you wouldn’t mind calling AAA if your car has left you stranded, right?
Why wouldn’t the same apply to seeking the professional help of a psychologist or a mental health counselor? What’s more, the services of a mental health professional are much more important! A car will take you from A to B. Possibly, you would drive to work, to meet friends, or your head-turning date. Well, your psychological health end emotional well-being will define the quality of your life, your work and relationships. Which one do you think should take priority?

The field of mental health is blooming with a myriad of professionals, who adorn their names with all sorts of titles (M.D., Ph.D. Psy.D, L.P.C., M.F.C.C., etc.). It’s easy to become overwhelmed and confused from all the terminology.

So, who do you call for an appointment? Let me give you a few tips and suggest some questions that you should be asking. The answers may just make that important decision a little easier for you.

1. Is there a good fit and interpersonal bond between you and your therapist?
Only you can answer that question and the answer should be completely honest.

Notice, that in this article I’m not talking about finding a competent therapist, but the right one for you! Study after study indicates that the bond established with the therapist is what contributes to healing. There has to be a good fit if the helping relationship is to work.

If your therapist ‘annoys’ you or ‘bores’ you out of your mind, you might want to consider terminating the therapy. *I have to put a disclaimer here, saying that your therapist is not supposed to become your buddy or best friend. If he or she is doing the job right, therapy will evoke some powerful feelings. In this process, it’s not uncommon for a client to get angry with the therapist. This wouldn’t necessarily mean the therapy is failing, as long as you (and your therapist) are able to work through such issues and understand the internal processes involved.

An important part of having a healing relationship with your therapist is feeling safe and secure. If you are constantly uncomfortable in their presence and feel too intimidated and can’t let your guard down, there is little benefit to be expected.

2. Does the therapist have strong academic background?

Is a Ph.D. better than a Psy.D.? Or the opposite? The honest answer is, it depends.

The academic title of the therapist should not determine your choice. Yes, a Ph.D. conveys an air of prestige (and for a good reason), but does not guarantee success in therapy. You want to make sure that the therapist has undergone extensive academic study, but whether he/she comes from one of the most prestigious schools or not, is not a good indicator of their practical skills. A Yale-schooled Ph.D. might be a perfectly competent therapist, but not the right therapist for you.

3. What experience does the therapist have?

The letters abbreviated after a therapist’s name are not the most critical component in showing professional competency in work with clients. What matter is relevant experience. When scanning the field for a therapist, you want to ask about clinical experience. Has the therapist done clinical work or clinical residency? Keep in mind that even newly graduated professionals can have excellent records of their supervised clinical work.

If you’re seeking help for a specific issue or condition, you want an experienced specialist. For example, if you are looking for marital counseling, you wouldn’t want to see a therapist who has never done couple’s counseling before. If you’d like someone to work with your 5-year-old daughter, it’s not a good idea to see a therapist who’s only worked with adults.

4. What license of certificate does the therapist have?

You might be surprised to find out that not everyone with a Ph.D. in the field of psychology is licensed from the government to work with clients. Many Ph.D. have experience mainly in conducting research. Don’t hesitate to ask the therapist about his/her credentials, experience and licensure before committing to therapy. The government licensing board has specific requirements and state exams in order to license a mental health practitioner and that’s a good starting point in your search.

5. What form of therapy will you undergo?

I agree that you don’t need to have a background in Psychological theories in order to choose a therapist, but it’s important to have some information about the different forms of psychotherapy. The most prominent ones are: Psychoanalysis, Humanistic, Cognitive-Behavioral and Group therapy. Most therapists use a combination of approaches, but there usually is a dominating perspective.

Why is this important? Each form of therapy uses different methods and has different goals. Yes, they all want to facilitate positive changes in your personality and behavior, but have quite different ways to go about it.
For example, a psychoanalyst’s goal would be to reveal and resolve unconscious conflicts. This is usually done though exercising free association and dream analysis, among other things, as well as revisiting early childhood experiences. I imagine, that if you don’t believe in the meaning of dreams, you wouldn’t be excited to keep a dream journal, correct?

What is more, different forms of therapy can require more or less time to achieve similar results.
Psychoanalysis normally lasts much longer than, say, cognitive-behavioral therapy. Why so? Well, psychoanalysis will try and delve into your unconscious and bring on the surface all those unrealized fears, desires and conflicts. This takes a lot of time and a lot of effort  from both you and your therapist. The process involves analysis of dream symbols, memories and transference. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, on the other hand, doesn’t care about unconscious conflicts. It attempts to fix the problem here and now, instead of visiting dream content or childhood experiences. Because of its very nature, a cognitive-behavioral therapy typically require less time.

Of course, this is not strict science and the success of therapy depend on too many factors to be easily simplified. Yet, these are the general trends about the different therapies you can see out there.

6. Will your medical insurance cover some of the costs of the therapy?

Depending on the situation, this could be the first question you’d like to ask. Whether the therapist can works with your medical insurance is very important and something you can discuss in your first meeting.

Many therapists don’t expect you to pay for your first meeting because it’s a time for you to get to know each other. Typically, in the first half of the meeting, you will present what brings you to their office. After that, they will explain what is expected in the course of therapy and suggest a time for your meeting, which is usually negotiable, depending on the caseload they currently have. However, if the therapist thinks he/she may not be the best fitted to work with your problem, they should acknowledge that and give you at least one or two referrals.

Therapy is wonderful empowering experience and I hope you can find a therapist who can deliver just that.

Image: Dimitri N.

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