How to Find the Right Therapist When You’re Looking for Help
When you’re looking to start therapy, finding the right therapist is the NUMBER ONE most important thing you can possibly do.
In fact, getting yourself set up with the wrong therapist can be completely counterproductive and cause harm. Just because a certain practitioner is close to your home, or your best friend’s neighbor highly recommended them doesn’t mean that you have to go see them. You need to make sure you and your therapist fit together really, really well. This is especially important in addressing maternal mental health conditions like postpartum depression and anxiety.
I’ve been in therapy off and on for the last decade and have seen at least half a dozen different practitioners. Some I’ve loved and have had an ongoing relationship with for years. Others have left me feeling anxious and dreading my next appointment. In order to make the most of your time, and to help you speed up your search for the therapist, it’s important to keep your needs as the focus. While you’re exploring your options, you’ll want to keep the following things in mind in order to set yourself up for success.
Therapeutic approach and training
There are a lot of different approaches to therapy and finding a practitioner who practices in a way that makes you comfortable is paramount. Some of the more common approaches that you’re likely to come across include Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Person-Centered Therapy (or Rogerian therapy).
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all your options, but a starting place to get you thinking about what might be best for you. Many skilled therapists will use a combination of approaches when working with you and developing a treatment plan. Use time during your first appointment to ask questions about how a specific therapy works and why it’s something you might want to consider. Also ask about whether they have experience working with perinatal women and understand the nuances of maternal mental illnesses.
The way that your therapist manages your conversations and moves you through each session is also very important. My most productive and long lasting therapeutic relationships have been with professionals who just let me sit and talk and they re-frame things as we go along. This is a “talk therapy” approach and it might not be best place to start if you’re incredibly uncomfortable sharing how you’re feeling or embarrassed by your story.
Other practitioners may want to set down clear goals in writing with you or establish milestones. Others still may send you home with worksheets and ask that you do homework between sessions that is then used to inform your next appointment. Ultimately, you’ll know what’s best for you and can pick the right person for your needs.
Presentation and professionalism
When you’re meeting a therapist for the first time, it can feel like a really awkward first date. Or it can be a highly professional and well orchestrated appointment that leaves you feeling confident in your choice. Expect them to go over their training and experience, their processes for ensuring confidentiality as well as legal requirements for disclosure of information and general office procedures.
Take careful note of how they present themselves and the way they talk to you. Pay attention to how the office space feels when you’re inside. All of these things may seem overly picky or unnecessary, but they form an integral part of your experience. They may also make you decide to continue with therapy or stop going altogether.
Personality and the ability to build trust
Generally speaking, you’ll know if you and your potential therapist are a good fit within the first 5 to 10 minutes of your first session. Your first impression of your therapist can make or break your therapeutic relationship. It could be that how they speak to you reminds you of your mother. Or maybe you don’t feel respected in how they respond to your experience.
Stay clear of anyone who discredits you, speaks down to you or suggests that you shouldn’t be in their office and that you just can’t handle what life throws at you. This should go without saying, but avoid someone who claims that maternal mental illnesses aren’t real (they’re out there!). Carefully consider if you feel like you can trust this person enough to start a therapeutic relationship. If the answer “no”, then keep looking.
Location, logistics and convenience
Consider where your therapist’s office is. If it’s a big commute for you to get to their office and it means taking half a day off work to try and fit it into your schedule, you might want to look elsewhere. Arriving stressed out and angry isn’t going to enable you to get the most out of each session.
Other practical things you’ll want to consider are things like is there childcare available onsite or nearby? Do they have a sliding fee schedule? What are office hours like and do they work with your schedule? Do they offer appointments online over Skype or another secure network? Are they willing to collaborate with your other health care providers? Considering these factors upfront can save you a lot of time, stress and money in the long run.
When it comes down to it, always remember that you don’t have any obligation to stay with a therapist. If your relationship with your therapist doesn’t make you feel safe, happy and supported, or you always arrive in a panic because of your commute, you need to look elsewhere. Sticking with a therapist who is a poor fit can actually cause harm and that’s the last thing you want to do. You’re the patient, you know your needs and you can trust your instincts. You’ve got this, Mamas.
Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.