Understandably, many people are not sure what criteria they should use to find a qualified psychotherapist. However, in order to ensure that your individual needs and styles are met, it’s vitally important to gather pertinent information before choosing a therapist.
Moreover, good therapists understand the importance of establishing safe and productive relationships with their clients and are more than happy to honestly and openly address their concerns and fully answer any questions they may have. (Be wary of therapists who seem annoyed or become defensive when you ask questions. This could be a sign of things to come.)
To make this process easier – and ensure that you receive the very best help - ask all therapists that you’re interviewing the following 10 questions. Then use the additional information I’ve provided as a guide for the answers you should receive.
1. What, if any, State licenses do you have that entitle you to practice psychotherapy or counseling?
Not all states require licenses to practice psychotherapy, however, New York State does. By obtaining a therapist’s credentials you’ll be assured that he or she has the necessary education and training and has successfully completed all state licensing requirements. If you live in any state other than New York please check with your state licensing or education board to see what credentials are necessary to practice in your state.
Therapists should have one of the following licenses and their names should be followed by the appropriate abbreviation (e.g. Kathleen Dwyer Blair, LCSW):
- Licensed Clinical Psychologist, PhD.
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker, LCSW.
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, LMFT.
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor, LMHC.
You should also check to make sure that your therapist has complied with all other state requirements and has no court actions pending. Additionally, if your therapist works in a group practice, do your best to find out what their hiring requirements are ahead of time.
2. How many years post license clinical experience do you have?
If your life was on the line, would you feel comfortable hiring an attorney right out of law school? Probably not, if you’re like most people. Why? Because experience matters and you’re far more likely to succeed with more experienced counsel.
It takes the average therapist many years to reach an effective level of proficiency. For example, it took me approximately six years before I felt skilled and effective enough to handle any client or situation that came through my door. It took me hundreds of sessions to develop the style, proficiency and therapeutic tools necessary to assist people in meaningful ways. I did not think so at the time, but I now recognize that there is a glaring difference between my level of expertise during my first six years and today. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but in most cases you’ll feel more comfortable and confident with a more experienced therapist.
3. Do you specialize in treating specific issues or types of clients?
If so, what types? It’s a good idea to find a therapist whose concentration matches your needs. For example, if you’re looking for couples therapy or marriage counseling it is vital to seek a therapist who specializes in this area - not someone who sees couples periodically. Ask additional questions, such as “What percentage of your caseload are couples?” or “Do you like working with couples?” We tend to get proficient at doing the things we like to do.
If you’re experiencing grief or loss, a psychotherapist who specializes in this area will know how to help you in the most efficient and effective way. Many therapists generalize (treat any and all comers) and do not get really good in any particular area. Look for a therapist who is passionate about what they do and they will be much more likely to do it well.
4. What therapeutic styles or approaches do you practice?
Therapists’ styles refer to how they interact with their clients. For example, some therapists provide open feedback regularly while others are more inclined to sit and listen. Others are laid back, accessible, and even humorous and some are more formal, serious, or detached. You get the idea ... Your goal, then, should be to find a therapist who’s style matches your own.
Conversely, therapists’ approaches speak to the methodologies they use to help their clients accomplish their goals. Since there are many valid approaches for treating a variety of issues, so you’ll want to make sure that your therapist is trained and experienced in multiple methodologies. Some of the most common therapeutic approaches, or orientations, are:
- Cognitive Behavioral.
- Family Systems.
- Body, Mind, Spirit.
If your therapist is trained in multiple approaches he or she is more likely to find the most effective way to treat you in the moment, and this will increase the likelihood that you’ll gain the most out of your sessions. That’s why the best therapists find out what methods are unique and effective for their clients and never take a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
5. Have you ever been in therapy to work through your own issues?
Therapists who have not worked through their own issues - and we all have them – may eventually play them out in their sessions with clients. For example, when therapists have unresolved emotional issues such as anger, they may not be comfortable with their clients’ anger. In other words, the more personal work therapists do, the more empathetic, objective and helpful they are.
I personally would not want to work with anyone that did not see the value of therapy as a way to live a higher quality of life. Simply put, therapists should be “walking their talk.” Please note however, that while it’s perfectly acceptable to ask a therapist if they’ve done their own work, it is not okay to ask for details on the nature of their treatment.
6. Do you have a clinical supervisor or someone you work with when you are stuck?
Good therapists are not lone rangers; they know we all get stuck at times and it’s a great idea to seek second opinions or obtain ”reality checks” from time to time. In the world of therapy it’s common practice for therapists to consult with, or be clinically supervised by, other professionals. While it is only mandated during clinical training; it is strongly recommended that the practice continue for the greater good of therapists and their clients. Beware of psychotherapists who say they never need help.
7. Do you adhere strictly to the laws regarding confidentially?
Any reputable therapist must keep all verbal and written material confidential unless they have your written permission to release it. They cannot even disclose that they know you or who you are without your explicit written authorization.
8. If I am in crisis or need to speak with you briefly over the phone will you accommodate me?
It is important to have access to your therapist in a crisis, so ask if his or her schedule accommodates impromptu sessions. If something occasionally comes up and you can’t wait until your next session, your therapist should be willing to have a 10-minute phone conversation with you. This demonstrates his or her accessibility and desire to assist you whenever needed.
9. Do you answer your phone during sessions?
During YOUR sessions, your therapist’s focus should be entirely on you and your needs. In my opinion, if he or she chooses to pick up the phone, they’re clearly not providing you with the time and attention you’ve paid for, and deserve. What’s more, it’s disrespectful and will interrupt the process and rhythm of your sessions.
10. What is your office environment like?
It’s extremely important that you feel comfortable in your therapist’s office. So, first identify the type of environment that is the best fit for helping you grow, heal and learn. Then find out more about your therapist’s location and make sure it’s a good match for your needs. For example, you might ask if their office is located in a home or commercial building and/or if the setting is “cozy” or “clinical”.
By: Kathleen Dwyer Blair, LCSW, BCD