“How to find a good therapist?” – Friends ask me this question quite often, and I remember being quite worried about this myself: how do I even start looking for a good therapist? How do I choose one suitable for my needs? How do I know they are professional enough to keep me safe and sound?
Where to start your therapist research?
With the volume of stigma attached to our mental health and well-being, it can be daunting enough to admit that you need therapy, let alone start researching the right person to support you. So here are my quick few tips.
First of all, browse the leading counselling directories: Counselling Directory, Psychology Today BetterHelp and directories of leading accreditation bodies (BACP, NCS, UKCP). In the US, First Session features fantastic introductions. If you are in Ukraine, you might want to start here. If you need a specialist therapist or one that supports a specific community, find their representative bodies and start there. I know people like to Google everything, but do check the accreditation in this case. If you start with the directories, you decide to work with accredited professionals accountable to their associations. They can afford a directory listing, which implies a professional, successful practice. I am not saying that not being on a directory equals terrible support. However, this approach is safer if you are new to therapy as the industry is still hugely unregulated.
Secondly, reach out to your local mental health organisations and ask them for local recommendations. If you can tap into that community by going to events or training – the best way to identify a suitable professional is to see them in their natural habitat.
Finally, ask around. Ask people around you – especially if you trust them. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing for a good therapist.
How to identify a good therapist that suits your needs?
The term “good therapist” is tricky. On the one hand, solid research shows that the success of therapy depends on the quality of your relationship with the therapist and their belief that you can get better (their good intent). On the other hand, we all have come across horror stories, so it is essential to consider some basics.
Therapist’s training and experience – studies show that even student therapists can be as effective as those with a lifetime of experience. However, in my personal experience, you will get much safer and steadier support from a person who has a solid basis for their work. My starting point would be at least 450 hours of client work, 400 hours of studies, and at least a Level 4 diploma in counselling – so at least 3-5 years of training and placement.
Therapist’s specialist training – ask what they specialise in and what essential courses they think are critical for their work (ASIST Suicide Prevention, Anti-Oppressive Practice, core psychological training, niche training like ecotherapy or psychodrama)
Therapist’s maturity, empathy and personal experience – you are looking for a kind person who makes you feel at ease and clearly can hold your troubles for you (not vice versa).
Therapist’s approach – this means how they work – this is the part they should be able to answer clearly, without patronising and with clarity so that you understand it too
Therapist’s ethical values – what codes of ethics do they follow
Therapist’s preferences – do they work with external thoughts, feelings and behaviours (CBT), or deeper processes (PsychoAnalysis); do they like to challenge their clients, do they work with positive emotions etc.
Details of therapy – regularity, cost, location, flexibility but also boundaries – what are you signing up for, really?
Legacy therapist – a good therapist will have an appointed colleague for emergencies to ensure the safe ending of work in case of their illness or death (I like to ask this question to test therapist’s competence as many don’t even know the term, but in the pandemic times it became pretty normalised to request it)
How do we start?
Shortlist your therapists and check their websites, photos, profiles, even their official social media channels (since 2018, we are ethically allowed to run those too). Contact your favourites and ask for an initial session – this way, you do not have to commit to therapy and can ask all your questions.
How to check if your prospective therapist will keep you safe and well?
First of all, they are trained to do so – they understand safeguarding, contract for all emergencies, studied suicide prevention, trauma, eating disorders and self-harm (basics of safety). Secondly, they openly respond to your initial questions and encourage you to ask more or even help with asking the right questions too: to feel safe, you need clarity, and you need to be well informed. And finally, with a good therapist, you do feel safe. And by that, I mean comfortable enough to open up about your inner world gradually. You think, and it might be a gut feeling from the first second you see them, that you can trust your inner world to them for those hours spent in their therapy space.
What if we start work and I do not like my therapist?
This can feel a bit tricky, especially if your therapist makes you feel uncomfortable; you might not like to admit this to them. It is recommended to tell your therapist that you struggle with their support only because there might be something that you are unaware of, and a good therapist will safely explore it with you. A good therapist will never ever try to convince you to stay. They will respect your choice and help you exercise it – your consent matters. However, not showing up for the next session is also a sign of choice – if it’s hard for you to end, email your therapist to respect that they may worry about you. That’s OK too. This support is for you, and it should work on your terms. Also, sometimes we need to try out work with a few therapists to get an idea of what we need. There is a good therapist there for you, so keep looking.
In summary, there are many things to consider when choosing your therapist. Sometimes it’s enough to know that you are healing and feeling safe with the person. However, in most cases, it is helpful to dedicate some time to meaningful research, trial and final choice of a therapist. Therapy will be an intimate, healing and profoundly opening experience. If you respect yourself, you may want to allow time and effort to find the right person to assist you.
UPDATE: Carolyn Spring, a fantastic trauma specialist, wrote a much better blog post on the topic that goes into debt of many important aspects of your therapeutic experience. Check it out here.