Do you know you need help with your mental health, but when you think about finding a therapist, it all feels really overwhelming?? You aren’t sure what you need to do to find the right therapist – someone you’re comfortable with, whose schedule works with yours, who takes your insurance, who is trained in the issues you’re wanting to work on?
Or have you already tried therapy, but you had a bad experience or it’s just not really helping? So now you’re feeling stuck and you’re not sure what to do next?
I decided to write this blog post to answer just about every question I’ve heard someone ask about finding a therapist. My goal is to make the entire process of getting help much more straightforward. I will give you clear action steps you can take to get the right kind of help for you, so you can start feeling better and being who you want to be and living the life you want as quickly as possible.
Studies show the most important factor in determining success in therapy is not the letters after your therapist’s name (LPC, PsyD, PhD, etc.). And guess what else? It isn’t even the type of therapy they practice. While choosing an evidence-based therapy modality is important, the most important factor is the relationship you have with your therapist.
Do you like your therapist? Do you feel heard and understood? Or do you feel judged or even shamed by your therapist? Is therapy sometimes fun and relaxing while still challenging? Or is it always painful, or even boring? Do you feel like your therapist genuinely cares about you and is invested in your healing?
Your answers to all of these questions can be signs your therapist is a good fit… or not.
Okay, so now you know that the relationship is the most important factor, you still have to actually FIND your therapist. And you might be feeling a little overwhelmed by this process or stuck and like you aren’t getting anywhere. Either it is so confusing that you don’t know where to begin, or the efforts you have made so far have not been successful. Maybe the therapists you have searched or talked to so far, didn’t reply to you, Do not have current openings, don’t take your insurance, or just don’t seem to fit your personality style. Or…maybe you’ve been in therapy and it’s not working, or you’ve decided it doesn’t feel like a good fit.
So…there are a few different things I want to explain to help you narrow down your search, and to make the process of searching a little easier for you.
Let’s talk about therapist credentials first, because some matter and some don’t.
If you start the process of finding a therapist, you are going to notice all kinds of letters listed after a therapist’s name and you probably aren’t sure what some of them mean.
Some groups of letters can refer to the therapist’s education. For example, “PsyD” and “PhD” are clinicians with a doctoral degree. Any group of letters starting with an “M” indicates a masters level clinician, or masters degree. Anything starting with an “L” indicates which kind of license they hold. In the U.S., counselors, therapists, psychologists, and social workers all have to be licensed by their state licensing board in order to legally practice therapy. This is also important to understand if you are interested in finding someone to work with virtually. Even if you are always going to be meeting through video sessions, your therapist must be licensed in the state where you reside. Depending which state you are in, there are different names for a clinician who is basically in their residency. These clinicians have a provisional license, so they still have to work under the supervision of another more experienced clinician. Once they accrue enough hours, they receive a license to practice independently.
So if you’re wondering the difference between a therapist vs a counselor, or if a therapist is the same as a psychologist… when it comes to going to one of them for therapy, this isn’t something you need to worry about. Whether someone is a doctoral or master’s level clinician and whether their license is in professional counseling, clinical social work, or marriage and family therapy – they all perform generally the same services and there has been no difference shown in therapy outcomes for clients working with these various professionals.
In addition to their degree and their license, there are other groupings of letters that reflect a therapist having specialized certifications.
Honestly, I don’t even know what all these are and will sometimes see ones I don’t recognize. Don’t be afraid to just type any of those groups of letters into Google if you aren’t sure what they mean.
Does it matter if one therapist has a specific credential but another doesn’t? Maybe, maybe not.
Here is an example:
One specialized credential you might see (and that I have) is the PMH-C, which stands for Certified Perinatal Mental Health Professional. Someone with this credential has completed a minimum of 20 hours of post-graduate training in perinatal mental health issues, has at least 2 years experience working specifically with perinatal clients, and has passed a qualifying exam. But, someone without this credential may still have taken specialized perinatal training and have extensive experience in working with perinatal issues. So seeing that someone has an additional credential in a specialty area can reassure you that they do have additional training and experience. But don’t rule anyone out if they don’t have a certain credential. If there is someone you’re interested in working with, you can just ask them about their training and experience in a certain area.
So the bottom line about credentials is that as long as the therapist is licensed in the state where you live, the letters after a therapist’s name are not nearly as important as if they have additional training and experience in working with the specific issues you are wanting to work on, and then if they have training and experience in using whichever therapy modality you are interested in.
Another piece to consider when finding a therapist is where does the therapist work? I am going to outline the most common work settings in which therapists may be employed and the different pros and cons of each. Note: these are generalizations and there will always be exceptions. but here are the most common work settings
A private practice therapist is someone who is self-employed, and working solo in their own practice.
Pro: The biggest pro of these kinds of therapists is longevity. This means they are least likely to change jobs, which could force you to have to find a new therapist.
Con: These therapists are often not on all (or any) insurance panels. If they are not in-network with insurance at all, or with your insurance, they would be “self-pay” and so are not always a realistic option financially.
A group practice describes when several therapists are working for the same group. They often have a receptionist and/or biller who handles scheduling and billing matters.
Pro: These therapists are usually paneled with most insurances, you can be seen sooner if you are open to working with any therapist in the practice, and they may offer low-fee sessions with intern therapists.
Con: Working with an intern is more likely to be short-term since they may not continue working there after graduating.
Agency/Community Mental Health
These are federally or state-funded agencies or clinics.
Pro: They accept all insurance, including Medicaid, and may have case managers and/or psychiatrists on staff as well.
Con: They tend to have limited openings, and high turnover in clinicians, which would mean you might have to switch to working with a different therapist after awhile.
Common examples are BetterHelp or Talkspace.
Pro: They are easily accessible, and you can start quickly.
In the next part of this post on finding a therapist, I will cover how to actually go about your therapist search and how to be sure the therapist you choose is a good fit!
Want to see an example of different therapist credentials or see what a website or profile for a private practice therapist can look like? I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Colorado and Georgia, and a Certified Perinatal Mental Health Professional (PMH-C). You can read more about my credentials here or check out my Psychology Today profile here.