We Have All The Tips You Need For Shopping Around For A Therapist You'll Like (They Do Work For You, After All)

Whether you're switching therapists or seeing one for the first time, finding the right one can be challenging. This is especially true in light of the fact that the U.S. is facing a serious shortage of mental health professionals. Many therapists are overloaded and not taking new patients. Even so, just because you find one that's available doesn't mean you should jump right in. Whether you have a pre-existing mental health condition, or you want to talk to someone about job stress, it's important to find a therapist you feel comfortable with and who has the skills and experience to guide you through the therapeutic process. 


Plus, with the state of healthcare, and many therapists not accepting insurance anymore, it might mean you're paying out of pocket. That's a big investment, so it's worthwhile to do your homework before signing on for sessions. If you're confused about where to start, read on for some insider tips on what to look for and how to choose the best therapist for you. 

Ask your network for recommendations

One of the best ways to find a therapist is through personal referrals from good friends or family. If you know someone who has had a positive experience with a therapist, then some of your work is already done for you. Of course, not every therapist will be the right fit for you, even if they are a good match for your mom or your bestie. But knowing that someone you count on trusts them can make you feel more at ease from the get-go. 


You might not know anyone in therapy, or you might not feel comfortable asking for a referral. No problem. There are other great resources you can reach out to for guidance. Your doctor is a good place to start. They may have someone they regularly refer patients to, or they may be able to consult with colleagues for suggestions. And don't be afraid to be specific about what you're looking for when you ask your doctor. The more information you give, the better the potential results. 

Organizations in your community are also options to go for therapist recommendations. If you're religious, you might ask at your place of worship. Local mental health agencies or community mental health centers can also provide you with a list of professionals in your area. 


Consider your wants and your must-haves

Before you start making calls, consider your criteria. Even if you've never been in therapy before, and therefore aren't sure what you need, there are still some logistical and personal choices you can make beforehand. 


Location is an important factor. Many therapists are offering teletherapy these days, conveniently allowing people to have their sessions at home without having to travel to an office. However, therapy is something that many prefer to do in person. If that's the case, consider how far you're willing to travel and how much time you realistically have to drive back and forth for your hour-long appointment. 

Next, decide whether you're going to use insurance to pay for your sessions or pay out of pocket. If it's the former, this may further limit your options, as many therapists don't take insurance. That will have a big impact on your search. If it's the latter, determine your budget. According to Good Therapy, one session can cost anywhere between $65 and $250. If you're seeing a therapist once a week or once every other week, what can you reasonably afford? 


Lastly, think about your personal preferences. Do you feel more comfortable seeing a male or female therapist? Do you prefer someone of a particular race or cultural background? There's no right or wrong answer to these questions, only what you feel is best for you. 

Learn about different types of therapy

Some therapeutic methods are better suited for treating specific mental health conditions, and a therapist may specialize in one or more of these methods. It can help to have a professional's feedback on which approach is right for you, but it's good to at least have an idea of what some of these will entail beforehand.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly practiced types of therapy. The main principles of CBT are that negative thoughts and behavior patterns contribute to mental health issues, and altering those patterns and learning coping skills can improve mental health. CBT is most often used in the treatment of anxiety and depression. 

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is very similar to CBT. The main difference is that DBT emphasizes accepting troublesome feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This, combined with learning new coping skills, has been shown to be effective for treating people with borderline personality disorder, but it is also used for the treatment of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.


Interpersonal therapy focuses on recognizing negative patterns in relationships — such as aggression or social isolation — and building skills to improve interactions with others. It's most commonly used to treat depression. 

Exposure therapy is most often used to treat phobias, PTSD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Individuals are exposed to their triggers in a controlled environment and learn skills for reducing their anxiety around them. 

Confirm their areas of expertise

Every therapist has areas they specialize in — also referred to as "scope of practice." They may have received specific training, such as art therapy or LGBTQ+ issues. What this means for you is that if your problems are related to work stress, a marriage and family therapist isn't going to be the best fit. Other common areas of specialization include substance abuse, PTSD, grief, ADHD, anger management, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, racial and sexual identity, self-esteem, phobias, and many more. 


You also want to look into the types of therapy they specialize in. Some therapists may have received extra training in DBT, CBT, mindfulness therapy, person-centered therapy, EMDR, exposure therapy, Gottman method, hypnotherapy, biofeedback, integrative therapy, or somatic therapy. Often therapists will have more than one area of expertise and offer more than one type of therapy. If you're not sure what type of therapy you're looking for, that's okay. You can still contact the therapist and schedule a consultation to see if they're a good fit.  

Know what your therapy goals are

Goal-setting is usually a part of therapy. However, it helps to think about your goals before you even contact a therapist. This will help you narrow down what you're looking for and make sure your potential therapist is a good fit. In your consultation, the therapist might also ask you about your goals, so you should at least have a rough idea about what you're hoping to achieve in therapy


It helps to get specific. Instead of saying, "I want to be happy," think about something that would make you happier. For example, "I want to learn to communicate better with my partner so they understand me," "I want to have more confidence at work so I can take on bigger projects," "I want to learn strategies for dealing with strong emotions," or, "I want to learn how to manage my stress so I can be a better caretaker to my elderly parent."

You can also ask yourself a few questions if you're having trouble identifying what you want to work on. For example, what are some things that you're tired of? What do you enjoy and desire more of? What are some things you'd like to achieve, but haven't yet?


You might have several goals you want to reach in therapy, and that's fine. Write them down, and try to be as specific as possible. Remember that these aren't set in stone. You and your therapist can tweak them once you start working together. 

Check their credentials

Several different types of professionals offer therapeutic services. These include therapists, psychologists, and counselors. They all have had different training and will have different credentials. Depending on your therapeutic needs, you may want a traditional therapist or choose to see any of the three. 


Counselors have varying levels of education, depending on what specializations they work in. Counselors will usually have at least a bachelor's degree. Any counselor working in private practice must have a master's degree to be licensed in their state. All therapists must have a master's degree and complete specialized training, as well as two or three years of clinical supervision. Psychologists need a doctoral degree, commonly either Ph.D., Ed.D., or Psy.D. Prior to this, they must have earned a master's degree and have some work experience. Psychologists typically have to complete two years of clinical supervision to be eligible for licensure. 

In practice, counselors tend to be more solution-focused, addressing particular issues that are problematic for the client and helping to guide them toward a goal. They may see a wide range of clients, or they may specialize in a particular area. Therapists, due to their advanced training, will stay within their areas of expertise and use distinct therapeutic methods such as CBT and DBT. Psychologists also stick to seeing clients in their area of expertise — which may be even more focused than that of therapists. Psychologists will also use specific treatment modalities, such as CBT or psychoanalysis. 


Confirm your insurance coverage

Using insurance to pay for therapy will inform your search for a therapist, as not all accept insurance. First, you want to make sure your insurance covers therapy. Most health plans, including employer-sponsored, health insurance marketplace, and Medicaid, will cover mental health in the same way they cover physical health. 


Secondly, what is your deductible? Mental health and physical health are both subject to the same terms — you must pay out of pocket until you reach your deductible. If you have a high deductible and don't use your health insurance that much for physical health, you may be paying for therapy out of pocket whether or not you use insurance. 

Next, find out what your copay will be once or if you meet your deductible. It is typically the same amount as your copay to see your primary care physician, but not always. This only applies if you see an in-network provider who is contracted with your insurance plan. 

The alternative is an out-of-network provider. Your plan may cover a portion of the charges if you go out-of-network, but it might not. If it does, you will have to pay upfront for the session and then request reimbursement from your health plan later. The advantages of choosing an in-network provider are that payment is easier and it's less expensive. The benefit of choosing to go out-of-network is that you'll have more providers to choose from. 


Or pay out-of-pocket

People decide to pay out of pocket for therapy for a number of reasons. Because many therapists don't take insurance, paying out of pocket enables you to choose from a wider pool of providers. You're not limited to only those who are contracted with your health insurance company. And you don't have to hassle with trying to get reimbursed for out-of-network visits.


Your insurance also may not cover certain types of therapy. For example, health insurance typically doesn't cover marriage counseling. Additionally, not all reasons for seeking therapy will meet the criteria for coverage by your insurance provider. In order to get coverage, you must receive a qualifying diagnosis of a mental disorder — such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder — from your therapist. Most insurance will not cover therapy for non-diagnostic reasons such as job loss or grief. 

Having a diagnosis on record with your insurance company also means that you have a documented pre-existing condition. Your medical records are accessible in some situations, such as if you require government clearance or if you apply for a job that requires a background check. This also may make getting life or disability insurance harder and more expensive.


Regardless of the reason, you'll want to ask upfront about what your therapist charges so you can decide whether it fits your budget. In some cases, therapists will offer a "sliding scale" fee, which is a reduced fee based on your income.

Arrange a phone consultation

Once you've narrowed down your list, you can call or email your candidates. First, ask about their availability and if they are taking new clients. If the answer is yes, you can ask to set up a brief consultation via phone or, potentially, video. These consultations are typically free of charge. They give both you and the therapist the opportunity to ensure a good fit. 


Don't be afraid to "interview" your licensed mental health professional during this time. Especially if you're paying out of pocket, therapy is a big investment. And, in a sense, you're hiring your therapist to do a job. Prepare a list of questions you'd like to ask ahead of time. You might want to cover logistics such as location, available meeting times (that may or may not work with your schedule), whether they accept insurance, or how much they charge. You can also ask about their credentials and experience. 

Then you can move on to see if they can meet your therapeutic needs. Just like a job interviewee, you can ask about your therapist's strengths or weaknesses, and you can ask about the provider's experiences working with other people with problems and goals similar to yours. You can also inquire about what a typical session is like and whether or not the therapist gives between-session assignments. 


Look for red flags

The initial consultation also gives you the opportunity to spot red flags or signs that the therapist either isn't a good fit for you or doesn't meet the criteria of an experienced professional. 

Some things to think about: How did you feel talking to the therapist? Did you feel relaxed and open, or on edge and nervous? How were the therapist's listening skills? Did you feel like they really listened to and heard you? Did they give you their full attention? Did they interrupt you, cut you off, or talk over you? Did they appear to consider what they wanted to say before speaking, or did they just blurt things out? Were they warm and inviting, or cool and stand-offish? Did they give too much personal information or overshare? Did the therapist say anything that made you uncomfortable or anything that could be qualified as inappropriate?


If you had some negative impressions, don't brush these aside. Listen to your gut feeling — if it doesn't seem right, it's probably not right. Don't feel like just because you had a phone consultation you're obligated to work with them. You can feel free to cross them off your list and move on to the next candidate.