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Finding a Therapist or Counselor

Choosing the right psychotherapist or counselor can be challenging and, in some cases, frustrating.  Several different types of professionals provide counseling and psychotherapy including psychologists, social workers, licensed professional counselors, and psychiatrists.  However, simply having a list of counselor names and their degrees may not help you decide which kind of counselor is right for you.  The following tips can help you make the right choice.

One common sense place to start when looking for a counselor is to get a reference from someone you trust.  If you know a friend or family member who has had a good experience with a therapist, ask them for the name.  Most primary care doctors know of reputable counselors and therapists in their community.  A third option is to ask a pastor, priest, or other clergy member.  For families with children, school guidance counselors are an excellent resource.  These people can steer you in the right direction and offer guidance on sorting through what type of counselor might be a good match. Another option would be to contact the free and confidential 2-1-1 number; they maintain a database that includes a list of counselors.

As with any type of healthcare treatment, you will make a better choice if you ask your potential therapist a few questions.  Qualified counselors and psychotherapists should be licensed by the state where they practice, and they should post their license where it can be easily seen in their office.  It is helpful to ask about a counselor’s general approach to treatment, whether or not they prescribe or advocate medications to help with mental health problems, and how they handle insurance and fees.  If you are not able to get clear answers to your questions that probably means you should try somewhere else.

Understanding the basic education and training of different mental health professionals can help you make an informed decision.  Psychologists have completed a Ph.D. with an emphasis on understanding theories and research about human behavior, as well as using psychological tests to help understand people’s problems and strengths.  Psychiatrists are graduates of medical school, with a special focus on mental health problems.  Licensed social workers and professional counselors complete a master’s degree, and may have specialized training in family therapy, vocational counseling, or other areas.  In Maine, a number of other specialty licenses or certifications are also available, such as licensed drug and alcohol counselors.

In trying to identify one single factor which makes counseling and psychotherapy work, most of the research suggests that the relationship between the therapist and the client is critically important.  Hundreds of studies have been conducted trying to determine exactly what determines whether or not counseling helps a person deal with their problems more effectively.  More than any specific approach, technique, or theory, research suggests that clients who feel positive about their relationship with the therapist experience the most benefit.

So, how do you choose a therapist or counselor?  Once you make a call and schedule an appointment, you really have to go try a visit.  When you leave, ask yourself how you felt about what went on.  Did you feel understood?  Were you comfortable talking about difficult topics?  Did you trust the therapist?  While therapy often involves uncomfortable topics, a good therapy relationship will allow you to answer “yes” to questions like these.  And if you answer yes, you probably made a wise choice.