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How to find the right therapist

By The Health News Team | May 31, 2022
Therapy session

If you’re considering therapy, finding the right therapist can take time. But it is definitely worth the effort.

According to Dr. Cary B. Shames, chief medical officer and vice president at Sharp Health Plan, the term “therapist” is often used for many types of mental health professionals. The care they provide can be similar, with some distinct differences:

  • Therapists and counselors include licensed clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists and professional clinical counselors who specialize in different therapeutic methods, make psychological diagnoses and provide therapy and case management. They treat mental health conditions and substance use disorders with individuals, couples, families and groups.

  • Psychologists are doctorate-level clinicians who provide similar services as therapists. In addition, they specialize in clinical assessment by conducting psychological testing and have training in different types of therapeutic treatment. They do not prescribe medication. Those with a PhD background are well-versed in research methods and studies.

  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can diagnose mental health conditions, prescribe medication and monitor effectiveness, and perform medical tests to help decide specific needs. They treat mental, emotional, behavioral and substance use conditions in inpatient and outpatient settings. Some psychiatrists provide psychotherapy while others do not.

“While credentials are important to keep in mind, a good therapist is someone with whom you can feel comfortable, safe and connected,” says Dr. Shames. “That connection is vital to not only building an effective patient-therapist relationship, but also to aligning on the goals of your treatment and your plans to achieve those goals.”

When searching for a therapist who can help you long-term, Dr. Shames recommends you follow these five tips:

1. Think about your needs.

  • Focus your search by writing down your main concerns and what you want to get out of therapy.

  • Track any symptoms, including feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in hobbies.

  • Determine what is important to you in a therapist, such as distance from your home or ability to hold virtual visits; ability to prescribe medication; experience working with people based on gender, language, racial background, sexual orientation, faith, trauma or other dimensions of identity; and treatment methods offered.

2. Do your homework.

  • Check your health insurance plan policy to see if you need a referral from your primary care doctor before seeking mental health services.

  • Look up mental health providers in your health insurer’s provider directory and identify at least three providers you think might be a good fit.

  • If you don’t have health insurance, community centers and public libraries often have phone numbers for local resources. You can also ask a trusted friend for referrals or look into school or work-based programs.

3. Make an appointment.

  • If you feel nervous before calling, take slow, deep breaths and remember your main concerns and reasons for seeking help.

  • Make sure the therapist accepts your insurance. Ask what you are expected to pay for the appointment. If services are offered on a sliding scale, ask what the cost will be.

  • Make an appointment, even if the next available opening is months away. You can always cancel if you find another therapist who can help you sooner.

  • Confirm if the appointment will be in person or virtual. If virtual, ask about the technical requirements, such as downloadable apps or secure, direct connection links.

4. Ask the right questions.

  • Write down questions about things that are important to you before your appointment. That could include the therapist’s experience regarding your concerns, such as anxiety, depression, trouble eating or sleeping; how soon treatment is expected to be effective; whether they can prescribe medication if needed; and what happens if treatment isn’t working for you.

5. Go with your gut.

  • Pay extra attention to your experience during your appointment — do you feel relaxed, accepted, heard, safe and respected?

  • Know that it’s OK if the first therapist does not feel like the best match for you — contact the next person on your list and keep looking.

“It takes patience and perseverance to find the right therapist,” says Dr. Shames. “The right person can help you learn to deal with mental health matters and improve your well-being for the rest of your life.”

If you feel you can't wait weeks or months to talk to someone, help is available. Dr. Shames advises using other resources in the meantime, such as peer support groups offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego or other mental health resources in the community. However, if you or a loved one is in crisis, call 911. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is now the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, and is available 24 hours a day by calling, texting or chatting 988.

Learn more about behavioral health services at Sharp HealthCare. Sharp accepts most health insurance plans, including Sharp Health Plan. Mental health coverage is available for Sharp Health Plan members and Sharp Direct Advantage Medicare members.

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