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How to find a therapist

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

Senior Asian American man looks thoughtfully at his computer monitor

Finding a good therapist is a big step toward better mental health. It’s essential to find someone you trust who has the skills and experience to address your needs.

Convenience is also an important factor. Therapy requires commitment, so it’s worth doing everything you can to make that commitment easier to keep. Be sure to consider scheduling and location, since they can influence your ability to stick with therapy over time.

Do I need therapy?

There’s no litmus test to prove that you “need” therapy. You can seek professional treatment at any time for any reason. If you have questions or concerns about your mental health, a licensed therapist can help.

What kind of therapist do I need?

When you’re just getting started with treatment, it may be hard to figure out what kind of therapist will work best for you. These tips can help you narrow down your choices:

  • Know why you’re going. It helps to have at least a general idea of what sort of mental health issues you’re facing. You don’t need a professional diagnosis to go to therapy (though you may need a diagnosis for insurance coverage—see “Payment options,” below), but you can make a list of what you’re struggling with and what you hope to get out of the experience. This can help you and a potential therapist decide what sort of treatment you need and whether they’re best equipped to provide it.
  • Reflect on your learning style. Understanding how you learn can help you decide what type of therapy to try. For example, if you weren’t a fan of homework when you were a student, you may want to choose a therapist who doesn’t give you assignments outside of sessions.
  • Prioritize trust. There’s no surefire way to choose the “right” therapist. What’s most important is that you trust them to help you. Instead of trying to find the perfect match for your background, make it your top priority to find someone you feel safe with.

Is therapy confidential?

In general, yes. With a few specific exceptions, your therapist isn’t supposed to share what you say in session. However, in any of the following circumstances, they may be required to disclose information you’ve shared.

  • You’re a danger to yourself (meaning you have a specific plan to attempt suicide, not just suicidal thoughts) or a danger to others.
  • You tell the therapist something they’re legally required to report (for example, abuse of a child, elder, person with disabilities, or dependent).
  • Insurance company audits may require the therapist to release limited information about your care.
  • A therapist may have to report threats made to someone else in order to safeguard the other person from possible harm.
  • A court order or subpoena legally requires your therapist to share information about your case.

How long will I be in therapy?

A typical session lasts one hour and happens weekly. The number of sessions you’ll need is unique to you and your therapist. Length of treatment will depend on:

  • The mental health issues you’re facing
  • The type of therapy you’re receiving
  • The progress you’re making
  • Your therapist’s opinion
  • Your opinion
  • Any limits set by your insurance coverage or EAP (employee assistance program)

How to get started

A great first step is to see your primary care doctor and ask for a referral for a therapist. Your doctor can also conduct tests to make sure your symptoms don’t come from a different medical issue, such as hypothyroidism (a hormonal condition that can cause fatigue, weight gain, and depression, among other concerns).

If you don’t feel comfortable seeing a doctor, try asking friends or family for recommendations. But remember that everyone has different needs and preferences—a friend’s therapist may be a good fit for them, but not for you.

You can also search our directory for a therapist who specializes in your mental health concerns.

What to look for in a therapist

1. Credentials

Your therapist should have the education and qualifications to provide professional treatment. Common titles and credentials include:

  • Psychologist: Doctoral degree or master’s degree in psychology
  • Psychiatrist: Medical degree in psychiatry (can prescribe medication)
  • LMFT: Licensed marriage and family therapist
  • LCSW: Licensed clinical social worker
  • LPC: Licensed professional counselor

Your therapist may have a different degree or title than the ones above, but most qualified therapists have at least a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field.

Keep in mind that certain titles—like “therapist,” “counselor,” or “coach”—are generic terms that aren’t legally regulated. You’ll want to look beyond these terms to find out what education and training a therapist has received.

It’s also important to make sure your therapist is licensed in your state and in good standing with your state’s licensing board. This information is available online.

2. Methods of treatment

Different therapists rely on different types of treatment for their clients. Many therapists are trained in more than one method. Common types of therapy include:

3. Specialties

Therapists usually list their specialties on their websites or in online directories, including ours. Common areas of specialization include:

It can be helpful to choose a counselor whose clients have some similarities to you. You can check a therapist’s client focus to see whether they work with individuals, couples, groups, adults, children, or teenagers.

4. Payment options

Cost can be a huge barrier to accessing professional mental health treatment. These tips may help you find more affordable therapy:

  • Check with your insurance provider. If you have insurance, your insurer may have a directory of in-network therapists on their website. Check to see if your policy covers mental health services—and if so, how much it covers. Keep in mind that qualifying for coverage may depend on receiving a diagnosis from a clinician.
  • Calculate your budget. Figure out what you can afford to spend on weekly sessions. If you find a therapist you like but can’t afford, consider seeing them less often (such as every other week).
  • Ask about reduced rates. Some therapists offer reduced rates for lower-income clients. Ask your therapist if they offer discounts, a sliding scale, or payment plans.
  • Take advantage of free or low-cost alternatives. A number of organizations—including national non-profits, government-led programs, local clinics, and more—provide therapy options for people who can’t otherwise afford mental health care.

5. Online vs. in-person treatment

Many therapists offer both in-person and online therapy sessions. Each option has pros and cons to keep in mind before deciding which setting you prefer.

Online therapy

  • Pros: It’s convenient and safe. You won’t have to spend time and energy getting to your therapist’s office, and you have the flexibility to work with a counselor who doesn’t live near you.
  • Cons: For online sessions, you’ll need a computer, tablet, or mobile device, as well as basic technology skills. Internet connection issues may interrupt your sessions. It may be hard to find a private spot at home for therapy, and it may feel harder to trust a therapist you’ve only met virtually.

In-person therapy

  • Pros: It can be easier to build a strong relationship with your counselor in person. It’s a private environment, your therapist can see your body language, and you don’t need to worry about technological problems.
  • Cons: Seeing a therapist in person requires reliable transportation and extra transit time. You’ll only be able to see providers within driving distance, and your sessions may be canceled by bad weather.

6. Trust

The most important question to ask when looking for a therapist is, “Do I trust this person to help me?”

We build trust with other people over time. It can be hard to decide if someone is trustworthy based on a first impression.

You may not feel comfortable sharing your deepest secrets during your first session. But it’s important to choose a provider you feel safe with—someone you may trust with more sensitive topics as you get to know them better.

Be honest about your preferences

Our personal preferences and biases play a role in whether or not we choose to trust someone. It’s okay to be truthful with yourself about your own.

For example, if you were harmed by a male authority figure, you may not feel comfortable seeing a male therapist. If you’re struggling with the everyday trauma of discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, you may feel more comfortable seeing a counselor who can relate directly to your experiences.

If it’s important to you that your therapist shares your cultural background or identity, you may need to do extra research to find someone. Increase your chances by:

Help can come from unexpected places

Finding a therapist who shares core aspects of your identity may not always be possible. In that case, consider how you could benefit from working with a professional who comes from a different background but demonstrates skill and enthusiasm in collaborating with you to address your mental health needs. It’s good to be frank about your preferences, but remember—what’s most important is that you choose someone you trust.

Find a therapist today

When you’re ready to start your journey to better mental health, browse our directory to find a licensed therapist who can support you along the way.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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