If you’re stressed out, unhappy, frustrated, or stuck; if you’re having problems in your relationships with family, friends, a partner, etc.; if you’re dealing with anxiety, fear, trouble focusing, overwhelming sadness, an eating disorder, a problem with drugs or alcohol, or anything else that you haven’t been able to conquer on your own; or if you just need someone to talk to, please consider getting into therapy.
If you decide to give it a try, the next step is finding a therapist, and that can be overwhelming enough that a lot of people stop there. You don’t have to. After a decade of therapy with five different practitioners, I’ve learned a lot about finding a good one, so here’s a little guide for you:
Step One: Know that it’s OK.
Acknowledge that depression, anxiety, and mental distress are real, and that you are entitled to seek health care for these kinds of things just as you would for any health problem. If you find yourself wondering if you “deserve” to go to a therapist or if your problems are “bad enough” to give you that right, ask yourself if you’d wonder those same things if you broke your ankle, or had bronchitis.
Step Two: Get started.
After graduation, I knew I wanted to continue going to therapy, because the transition between college and “the real world” would be stressful. But I had a lot of trouble deciding what kind of provider to see. The wide array of options overwhelmed and confused me—I didn’t know if I needed a family therapist, psychiatrist, a counselor, or someone with a PhD or an MSW. I had no idea what each of those things were, and what the differences were between them. But now I do, and I can tell you:
- Family therapists are people you can talk to about your relationships and interactions with family members. Sometimes they want to meet with other members of your family, either with you or separately (or, often, both).
- Counselors, masters of social work (who have an MSW), and clinical psychologists (PsyD or PhD) all provide talk therapy—the only difference is the level of schooling and clinical experience they’ve had. Clinical psychologists usually have research backgrounds, so they’re likely to have specific areas of specialty and interest (like eating disorders or agoraphobia or what have you), but many therapists of all types have specialties too, that you can ask about.
- Psychiatrists have medical degrees (MD) that give them the ability to conduct lab tests, prescribe medication, and provide physical examinations in addition to talking to you about whatever’s going on.
- For more information, read this guide on WebMD.
After talking to my former campus counseling center, looking up some information online, and asking my family doctor for recommendations, I chose to go to a clinical psychologist, because I wanted someone with an extensive training and research background. I didn’t want to see a psychiatrist because I didn’t want to consider taking medication as part of my treatment at that point.
Whatever you do, don’t just call the first person whose name comes up in Google or your insurance provider’s database in your area. In my experience, therapists with recommendations from friends, family, your doctor, a school counselor, and/or a trusted mentor turn out to work the best. If you are searching online, be sure to indicate specific subjects you want your therapist to have experience with to help narrow down the list. For example, I’ve found therapists I’ve liked by searching for providers in my area with backgrounds in spirituality, art therapy, and working with communities of color. One helpful resource I’ve used is the National Association of Social Workers’ website. Since I personally feel more comfortable opening up to a woman therapist, I also rely on organizations like the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute. When I’m working through issues related to race and discrimination, I look through the Association of Black Psychologists’ database. That said, I’m not advocating that you seek only therapists who look exactly like you. I’m only mentioning it because I personally have found it helpful to talk to people who specialize in the issues I’m focusing on at different times in my life.
Step Three: Take care of business.
For those of us Rooks living in the USA without universal health care, paying for therapy can be a challenge or downright impossible. If I had my way, everyone would get free access to therapy anytime they want it! If you don’t have free health care, take a good look at your financial realities. If you feel safe and comfortable telling your parents that you need support, they can help you determine what is possible within your family’s budget and possible insurance plan.
If insurance is not an option and/or you’re not in a position to get help from your parents, connect with your high school counselor—most of them have access to lists of places to get sliding-scale or subsidized care. Some universities have training programs that provide low-cost support. And nonprofit organizations like Mental Health America can connect you with local licensed providers who offer a variety of payment options.
It is especially important if you’ve under 18 to talk very explicitly with any counselor about funding and care options, as well as their terms and guidelines for confidentiality and parental consent. Parental-notification and consent laws vary from state to state, so before you reveal anything to a therapist, ask them what they are required to report to your parents and/or any authorities, and what they will report anyway.
You’ll also need to consider your location and how you’re going to get to and from your sessions. I once met a therapist that I really loved, but her office was really far from where I worked, and she didn’t accept after-hours or early-morning appointments. Trying to get to my sessions on time (and often paying for cabs to do so) was actually adding stress to my life, so I switched to someone closer. Therapy should be a healthy, supportive experience, not one that causes more panic or anxiety in your life.