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How Do I Choose a Therapist?

By Julie Scharper
Mary Vincitore is a therapist and the assistant director of the Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program.
Picking a therapist can be daunting. You want to find someone you’ll connect with. Someone with whom you can feel comfortable sharing private thoughts and feelings. But where do you start? A list of names from the internet seems so impersonal. Should you see the same therapist your best friend goes to? Your hairdresser’s neighbor’s cousin?

Mary Vincitore spends her days choreographing this delicate dance. Vincitore is a therapist who sees clients, and she is also the assistant director of the Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program, which helps connect people with a therapist in times of need. Vincitore herself has worked with a counselor when she sought guidance. “I know I’m biased, but I think that everyone at some point in their lives can benefit from talking with a therapist,” Vincitore says.

People often decide to see a therapist when they’re dealing with a big life transition, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the end of a relationship, Vincitore says. Others may be looking to process issues from childhood. And some seek help for more serious mental health concerns, like ongoing anxiety, depression, or substance abuse.

Sometimes you get lucky and find a good match by chance, Vincitore says. Years ago, while helping a family member through a tough time, Vincitore sought a counselor for herself. She went through an employee assistance program offered by her job, and it turned out to be a good fit. “She understood where I was coming from,” Vincitore says.

But you don’t have to rely on luck; you can do some preliminary research online via databases such as PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org. These allow you to filter your search by ZIP code, insurance access, and therapist specialty. When you’re searching for a therapist, Vincitore recommends making a list of qualities that are important to you. Would you prefer seeing a man or a woman? Someone who identifies as LGBTQ or specializes in working with those who do? Would you like someone who shares your race, ethnicity, or religious background? You may seek different characteristics in a therapist depending on what you hope to achieve. Vincitore saw a therapist licensed in marriage and family counseling for help with a family issue but preferred working with a practitioner who had specialized experience in faith counseling when wrestling with some spiritual questions.

Another factor is the therapist’s professional background. Psychiatrists are doctors who can prescribe medication but usually don’t provide extended talk therapy, whereas psychologists—who have a doctorate in psychology—do. A licensed clinical social worker or a licensed professional counselor both have a master’s degree in counseling as well as experience providing talk therapy. Marriage and family therapists specialize in seeing clients together as a group, but they see clients individually as well.

Therapists subscribe to different methods of counseling. Those who follow a psychoanalytic or psychodynamic approach will plumb a client’s life history, looking at deep-seated patterns in relationships. Humanistic therapists focus on helping a client develop a sense of wholeness. Cognitive behavioral therapy—one of the most popular modes of treatment—helps people change unhealthy patterns of thought or action. Other types of therapy might incorporate art, music, or movement. Most therapists blend together several approaches to best suit their treatment style, as well as their clients’ needs, and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask what methods they use when you call to make a first appointment. “I prefer a collaborative approach,” Vincitore says. “I like it when a therapist helps me expand how I see myself.”

A therapist should develop a rapport with you, help you devise a list of goals,and then help work toward achieving those, Vincitore says. When she works with clients, Vincitore sets clear expectations at the first visit, explaining how she can help. Keep in mind that it can take a few conversations to determine whether you click. It’s important that a therapist works at a pace that feels right to you, not pushing you to talk about painful topics before you’re ready. On the other hand, a therapist should challenge you to examine your thoughts and actions from a new perspective. As in any relationship, a good connection is most important.

And remember: You’re allowed to ask questions and suggest new approaches. If you would like your therapist to offer more opinions, or talk less, speak up. “Clients have a right to ask for what they need,” Vincitore says. “It’s important to express goals and desires and talk about how things are progressing.”

When you find a therapist you like, Vincitore suggests staying in touch, even after you feel ready to move on. Schedule a visit to check on your progress. And if you need to dive back in, you won’t have to start the search all over again.

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Qieer Wang

Tips for Choosing a Therapist

  1. Make a list: What qualities are important to you in a therapist?

  2. Choose your profession: Psychiatrist or psychologist? Licensed clinical social worker or licensed professional counselor?

  3. Consider counseling methods: Practitioners vary in their approach, so ask what methods they use to treat patients.

  4. Speak up: “Clients have a right to ask for what they need. It’s important to express goals and desires with a therapist,” Vincitore says.

  5. Keep in touch: When you find a therapist you like, schedule the occasional visit to check on your progress after your routine visits are completed.

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