Okay, here’s the situation: you think you could benefit from talking to a therapist. Perhaps you’re going through a stressful time at work or home, are experiencing relationship distress, are grieving a loss, are struggling with your mental health, are interested in personal growth, or have a child for whom you’re seeking services. But you feel overwhelmed at the thought of trying to find someone you’ll feel comfortable opening up to, and perhaps you already know that one of the keys to beneficial therapy is the quality of the therapist-client rapport. So how do you find a therapist who’s right for you? Here are a few suggestions to make the task less daunting.
Get to know the field. First, you’ll want to decide what types of therapists to consider. In Ontario, there are several regulated healthcare professionals who conduct psychotherapy (my article in a previous edition of Family Matters, referenced below, defines these various professions). One key factor that may contribute to your decision is the credentials required by any extended insurance coverage you may have. Next, while most therapists don’t require formal referrals, you can seek suggestions from trusted sources, such as your family doctor, friends, or family who’ve seen a therapist or are in a related profession, and the websites of regulatory bodies (e.g., www.cpo.on.ca, www.crpo.ca). If you get informal referrals from others, ask the referring person why they think the suggested therapist would be good for you. Also keep in mind the location(s) to which you’re willing to travel for your sessions.
Educate yourself and create a shortlist. From your list of options, create a shortlist of those who are most highly recommended or to whom you seem most drawn. To help, you’ll want to consider styles of therapy, areas of expertise, and therapist characteristics that may be important to you (such as gender, ethnicity, or religion). Styles or “modalities” of therapy refer to the general approaches a therapist takes when working with clients. Some modalities are better suited to some issues, and some styles may be a better fit for your personality than others. Read up on the various modalities, and get a sense of which approach may be best for your personal characteristics and for the reason why you’re seeking therapy. Most people also take into account at least some therapist characteristics, particularly gender. However, I’d encourage you to also be open to potential therapists outside of some of the demographic qualities with which you are most comfortable, as sometimes working with a therapist slightly outside of your usual comfort zone facilitates a reparative experience. Remember that you’re not looking for a friend (who is usually chosen based on shared characteristics and interests), you’re looking for someone with the training and expertise to help you in a less-biased and more one-directional way.
Go on a first date. Once you’ve got your shortlist, pick the therapist you think may be the best fit and set up a “first date.” (Some therapists may be available for a brief phone consultation, but meeting face-to-face is the best way to really determine the fit.) The first session might be framed by the therapist as a chance for them to get to know you and your reasons for seeking therapy, but it is also an opportunity for you to get to know them as well; you can ask questions about their training, experience, and approach, as well as get a general sense of their interpersonal style. You may be slightly distracted by your own nervousness, so regularly remind yourself that you’re learning about your therapist too, so that you can make a good decision for your own mental health needs.
Make a collaborative decision. Near the end of your initial session, discuss together how the match feels. While this is often largely left up to you as the client, your potential therapist may also provide their opinion of whether or not they think they are the best person for you to work with on your presenting struggles (i.e., you may present with something outside the realm of their competency for which they may suggest another provider with more experience). Courage to engage in such a discussion with honesty and openness will help immensely in finding your best therapist fit. And while the term “dating around” seems to slightly misrepresent the process, remember that it’s not unusual to meet with more than one therapist before finding “the one.”