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March 26, 2016
Table of Contents

1 Introduction
How Do I Find the Right Psychotherapist For Me?

by Dr. Jennifer Sowle


A question I'm asked quite frequently of someone seeking psychotherapy is, "How do I find the right psychotherapist for me?" The first thing I recommend is ask around for a referral from family members, friends, and coworkers. It is then I realize there is still a stigma around getting psychological help. Many people just don't feel comfortable asking people in their own lives. Either they don't want others to know that they need help; or they're afraid of making other people uncomfortable if they asked them!

1. Ask people you know for a suggestion.
My first suggestion is still to ask around (those who you feel comfortable asking). In the meantime, I guess we have to do more educating about psychological problems so that people do not feel judged when they need help.

2. Check the yellow pages. The yellow pages is still second to word-of-mouth for psychotherapy referrals. Yellow pages advertising usually requires that professionals be licensed to list under certain categories. While going to a licensed professional does not guaranteed a good therapeutic fit, you can make certain assumptions:

This professional has the education and training needed to pass licensure requirements in the State.
This professional has ethical standards they must maintain; and if they do not, you have recourse for disciplinary action.
This professional probably has to have continuing education in their field to maintain their license.
This professional must follow certain professional guidelines in administering treatment to their patients.

Professional categories to look under are:

Psychotherapists, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Marriage and Family Therapists, Social Workers, Counselors.

Work Setting Categories are:

Mental Health, Social Service Organizations, Crisis Intervention Centers, Domestic Violence and Women's Shelters, Alcohol and Drug Treatment Centers, Human Service Organizations. These may vary somewhat within your local phone listings, but you get the idea.

The internet is also a source for finding reputable professionals to help you. Just look for the same credentials that you look for from other referral sources.

As a point of clarification, Psychologists have a PhD and do psychotherapy and psychological testing. Psychiatrists are MD's or DO's (medical doctors) who have a specialty in Psychiatry. So, they can also be found under Physicians in your yellow pages directory. Psychiatrists can prescribe and manage psychotropic medications, but most do not do psychotherapy.

3. Get a Referral from Another Professional

Other professionals who deal with people in distress, such as Other Therapists, Medical Doctors, Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, Attorneys, Human Resource Offices at Businesses, Teachers and School Psychologists and Counselors, and Police and the Courts all may be appropriate sources for referrals. Some communities also have a referral systems. For example, Physicians Referral, which is a call in service.

What kind of helping professional would work best for me?

Let's go through some differences in therapists:

Would you feel more comfortable with a man or a woman?
Do you think you can connect better with a younger or older therapist?
D Do you need to have a professional who accepts your insurance?
Do you need a therapist with evening or weekend hours?
Do you know that you work better with a certain treatment approach or style?
Do you want a therapist who will be supportive for your lifestyle? For example a therapist who is gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender affirming.

As a note, sometimes clients believe that they cannot get understanding from a therapist unless the therapist has had the same experiences. For example, "I can't go to a therapist who has never been married", or "She can't understand, she's never had children, or "He's advising me, and he's divorced!" "He's never lost anyone, how could he know how I feel."

There is a reason why therapists do not talk about their personal lives, and this is one of them. Psychologists go through extensive training to become professionals in their field. Part of that training often involves the therapist becoming the patient so that they can work through their own personal issues before trying to help others. Just as the medical doctor has not had all illnesses, psychologists haven't experienced every human experience, but they learn through training and experience.

Now take a look at your situation?

Do you need somebody who specializes in your problem? Unless a therapist lists a particular specialty in their advertising, most therapists are general practitioners and can handle most problems.

Do you need medication? Most often a person doesn't know if they need medication. In this case,it's usually best to schedule an appointment with someone other than a psychiatrist. If you need a psychiatrist, you will be referred to one.

Is the problem more an individual issue or a relationships issue? If most of your misery is stemming from your relationship, and your partner is willing, start with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. These professionals have had additional training and experience that qualifies them specifically for the Marriage and Family Therapist licensure. Again, this doesn't guarantee they will be good therapists, but it does mean they have met certain requirements in the field.

If you are having sexual difficulties, you might want to seek help from a certified Sex Therapist. I find it is better to seek help from licensed professional who also has experience and training in sexual dysfunction. The field of Sex Therapy is somewhat less regulated than the others mentioned, so you want to make sure this individual is someone who is reputable.

What type of psythotherapy do you feel will be most helpful to you?

This is a question most people do not know how to answer. What types are there? This is why it's helpful to talk to a friend who has been there.

I am primarily a cognitive therapist, for example, but I wouldn't expect you to know that. And I don't list my primary treatment preference in any advertising because I like to be somewhat eclectic in my approach.

I would answer that question when you called in for an appointment if you asked me. Certainly, I would discuss my approach when you came for your first appointment.

If you were suffering from an Anxiety Disorder, I would use a more exclusively cognitive/behavioral approach, if you came in for PTSD, I would add some other treatment modalities specific to that disorder. Marriage Counseling, although cognitive, is treated a little differently than individual therapy. For example, I use more structure, more homework, and am more active with couples. It works better and gets the couple moving toward health more quickly.

What is the average length of treatment?

This probably has the most varied answer of all.

Some have chronic and severe mental illness and need the involvement of a Psychiatrist for medication and a therapist for initial treatment and then followup periodically as changes happen in the condition throughout life.

Some have more difficult acute disorders like a major depressive disorder which may also need medication and weekly therapy until the depression is reduced. Of those who take antidepressant medication, some do remain on medication for years to maintain health. The majority stay on medication for 6 months to 2 years, depending on their particular case.

Eating Disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, can be stubborn to treat in that they have impacted at many levels of the clients life. In the most difficult PTSD cases, two to three years of therapy is not uncommon. In the case of eating disorders, it can take longer.

That's only a small sample of possibilities, it really depends on the client's response to therapy and their life situation and the resources available to them in the community. For eating disordered people, for example, there are excellent inpatient treatment programs that can be lifesaving, and therapy would be a follow up to that.

Hopefully I have shed some small light on the mysterious world of psychotherapy. These are suggestions for finding a therapist. One of the things I do not address is "the personality factor". There really is no way to access your comfort level with a therapist until you meet with him or her. Since the first session is usually information gathering, give the new therapist two or three sessions to see if your personalities are compatible for entering into this most important trusting relationship with one another.

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer Sowle, PhD., is a licensed Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist. She is also a certified Sex Educator and Counselor. Dr. Sowle's website, http://here-to-listen.com gives information on psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders. She also gives advice on individual, sexual, and relationship problems and shares case studies from her practice.

Last Modified:   2005-12-28

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