You've finally made the decision to start mental health treatment. Congratulations! It's a wise decision. The average person suffers in silence for a decade or more before engaging with a therapist. That's 10 years of struggle, stress, and tension that could have been greatly helped by a professional.
So, how do you pick a therapist? How do you know what type of therapist is the best fit for you?
The short answer is that you don't know if the therapist will be a great fit for you until you meet. Picking a therapist from a website or online profile is a lot like trying to find a romantic partner on a dating app. Sometimes, people can seem like a good fit from their bios but aren't when you meet. Conversely, someone who has a poor web presence could turn out to be the perfect match for you. Here are some tips for finding a therapist.
Determine Your Mental Health Needs
You don't need to have a diagnosis to articulate what you need. Just think about how you have been feeling lately. If you are often feeling down, then look for someone who talks about treating mood problems, depression, or chronic sadness. The good news is that many therapists treat depression. It's a very common mental health disorder as over 17 million Americans struggled with Major Depressive Disorder in 2017.
If you are feeling keyed up, nervous, or stressed often, look for a therapist who treats anxiety. Again, this is a very common mental health concern. Therefore, you can likely bet that 9 out of 10 therapists you find can treat these symptoms.
Like other health fields, there are specialties in the field of mental health. For example, there are professionals who treat trauma, grief and loss, addiction, gender transitions, sexual awakenings, relationship issues, career changes, and eating disorders. If you believe that you are struggling with one or more of these issues, then it is best to look for someone who specifically notes this specialty in their bio.
Think About Your Comfort Level and Preferences
We tend to think that people who look like us will understand our struggles. In other words, women prefer women therapists and African Americans typically request treatment sessions with African American therapists. Many times, we see more seasoned adults seeking out a therapist who has more life experience as opposed to someone who is "young enough to be my granddaughter."
It's important that you think about your preferences and comfort level as you pick a therapist. You want to make sure that you can do "real" therapy work during your time in treatment. This means that you can concentrate on what brought you into treatment and avoid worrying if the therapist understands your struggle. For instance, if you are a Latino man dealing with racism at work, it makes sense that you may feel safer talking to a therapist of color. If you are a transgender teenager, you may feel more comfortable talking with a therapist who identifies as a member or ally of the LGBTQA+ community.
With that being said, using your preferences to decide on a therapist can be misleading. When you assume that a therapist who shares a race or sexual orientation with you automatically understands your struggle, you mistakenly assume all people in your cultural group are alike or even similar. In other words, if 67-year-old Gloria requests an older, female therapist, she may be assuming that a person who falls in a similar gender and age group will have the same values and beliefs. Of course, this could be far from reality.
It's likely that when a Black woman seeks therapy with a Black therapist, the therapist will understand the history of oppression, systemic racism and sexism (and perhaps other 'isms), microaggressions, bias, and racial trauma that the patient experiences just living her everyday life, but that's not necessarily the case. (As an aside, I once had a woman mental health provider tell me that she had never experienced sexism in her personal or professional life. I include this to say that it is possible to seek out a therapist who belongs to the same cultural group, but does not have a mutual understanding of the challenges that you face as members of that group).
While you should seek out a therapist with whom you feel comfortable, remember that personality characteristics and style still play a part in the therapeutic relationship as well.
Try selecting a therapist who will take you slightly out of your comfort zone. Yes, I know that I just said that you should think about your comfort level and preferences when considering a therapist; however, you should also challenge yourself to work with someone who may bring a different perspective.
Here's the thing...growth doesn't come from comfortable places. Growth only happens when you are uncomfortable. As much as therapy should be a warm, safe place, it should also be a place where you can feel messy, vulnerable, and challenged. Perhaps this means that you purposely look for a therapist who represents groups with whom you would normally not interact. Perhaps you try to tackle some of the racist, heterosexist, and classist biases that have been passed on from your parents. Yup, I just said that. I call this being "pushed with pillows." It's when someone who loves you pushes you to another level, but they do the figurative pushing through the soft barrier of a pillow. You feel the pressure and weight moving you to a deeper level, but it's not sharp pain.
Therapy is not a friendly conversation over coffee. It's hard work where you are challenged to understand deeper parts of yourself. The right therapist will walk with you on this journey in a way that makes you feel supported, loved, and pushed. If you use therapy correctly, it has the potential to give you amazing insights on how to achieve optimal health and a heightened sense of self-awareness.
Stay tuned for Part II of this series, So, You've Decided to Go to Therapy: Getting the Timing Right.