How to Find a Great Therapist
By Mary Beth Woll, MA, L.M.H.C
“Wait a second! Find a therapist?!? Do I need therapy? Do we really need it as a couple? With a little willpower, we could handle this on our own, right?”
The truth is, everybody needs counsel, at one time or another, from loved ones, trusted family and friends, pastors, mentors, and professionals. Taking this important step could save a person’s life or marriage and potentially change the course of many generations to come!
Before beginning the search for a therapist, it is good to clearly define the need.
- What are my symptoms?
- Is there an immediate threat to someone’s safety?
- Is there a desire to include spirituality in therapy?
- Will it be individual, marriage, or family therapy?
- Is there a need for a specialist in treating such cases as Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and others?
- How will I pay for it? Can I use my insurance? (Currently, children are covered under their parent’s insurance until age 26, even if married.) Do they offer a sliding scale?
- Would a support group or peer counseling provide what I need or do I need a professional who specializes in my situation?
With all these questions, is it any wonder that many people never make it to the therapist’s door? There are good answers to all these questions, but even before answering them, there are often other roadblocks that need to be addressed, like how does one even know when it’s time to see a professional?
How can I determine if I need therapy?
Consider when a person catches a cold. If they are sensible, they will drink more fluids and get more rest. If the cold persists, they may take vitamins or over-the-counter cold remedies. If the cold develops into bronchitis or pneumonia, it’s time to see a doctor! In such cases, it would be unwise and potentially life-threatening, to continue to self-treat or self-medicate.
In the same way, it is important to recognize when emotional, behavioral, or soul needs are too much for one’s personal support system. That’s when it’s time to stop “white-knuckling it” and get professional help!
As a Christian, shouldn’t I just rely on my church and my faith instead of a counselor?
Sometimes a person’s faith background or the religious traditions they were brought up with can be a roadblock toward counseling. Many have been taught that if their faith is strong enough, they need not rely on outside counseling. Some wonder, “Is it even O.K. for a Christian to go to therapy? If I were a ‘better Christian,’ I wouldn’t need therapy, right? Shouldn’t I just read my Bible and pray more?” This kind of thinking can prolong a person’s pain and unnecessarily add to the shame they may already be experiencing. Especially if someone is dealing with past trauma or abuse, some kind of addiction, or any number of other mental health challenges, a trained counselor can be an incredible tool and ally. In these cases, telling them, “You don’t need counseling. Just become a better, stronger Christian,” or “Just read the Bible and pray more,” can condemn them to more years of symptoms, hiding, and unhealthy coping strategies instead of being helpful. In a loving community of faith, we really should be encouraging each other to seek out the help we need, and receiving help from a trained counselor is a wonderful and healthy avenue.
What about medication?
Sometimes, there is a very real and legitimate need for medication in treatment for depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, among others. This must not be minimized any more than one would advise a diabetic not to take their insulin! Often people struggle with the idea of starting on medication, thinking that it makes them seem weak or even “crazy.” The reality is that the brain is an organ, like any other part of the body, which can become sick. In some cases, the brain is formed a little differently from birth and requires medical support.
Many Christians, and particularly those who have overcome drug addiction, struggle with medication issues, thinking that a “better Christian” would not need an antidepressant or mood stabilizer. This misconception can keep many people away from much needed treatment. Of course, it is true that God still heals, but apparently, He also chooses to use medicine and does not condemn us for it. Jesus confirmed this when He said in Matthew 9:12, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Praying for the sick is a vital ministry of the church, but it is just as dangerous for the church to advise against medicine as it would be for pastors and church members to line up and write out prescriptions for each other on Sunday mornings! This calls for a mental health professional.
Although therapists do not prescribe medicine, they can diagnose and refer for proper medical treatment, which is most effective in conjunction with therapy.
Is my past affecting my current life and relationships?
Some people experience childhood sexual abuse or other trauma that is terrifying or impossible for a child to understand. Memories of such horror don’t go away. They are so threatening that the mind protects the person by locking these memories away in the subconscious for years while they carry on with the business of growing up. Later, these memories can present as unexplained behavioral symptoms or big blank blocks of time in their childhood memories. When these symptoms begin to emerge in adult years, the person may need someone who can help them articulate and resolve what was previously unspeakable.
When they are ready to face the pain of the past, it is not safe or appropriate to talk to just anyone, although friends and family may play a part in the healing process. It is important that they seek out someone who is trained and skilled in such work; otherwise, it is possible for the unequipped helper to inflict more damage in the process.
How can counseling help my marriage and other relationships?
In addition to depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms, relationships or marriages may become so conflicted or distant that a third party’s perspective and input is needed. Such situations can be overwhelming to a couple’s support system of friends and family. Once again, professional help is in order. Seeking counseling, in such cases, is actually the responsible thing to do in order to continue to function well in the family and on the job.
What type of therapist is best for me?
Some of the confusion in finding a great therapist can be found in the titles alone.
- Psychiatrists will usually be identified as “Dr.” with “MD” following their name. These medical doctors specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental or psychiatric illnesses. They are trained in counseling, but typically use the client’s report of symptoms to prescribe appropriate medications and refer clients to therapists for counseling. While it is true that family practice doctors prescribe the overwhelming proportion of antidepressants in the United States, I prefer to recommend a psychiatrist when medication is needed, because, as specialists, they can often catch a subtle need that can make a big difference in prescribing the right medication.
- Psychologists (PhD or PsyD) have a doctoral degree in Psychology. They are specialists in various methods of therapy, as well as psychological testing. Psychologists do not prescribe medications but can refer to a psychiatrist, if necessary.
- Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC, LCPC) have a Master’s Degree in Psychology, plus 3,000 hours of post-master’s experience in order to be licensed. They are therapists who can diagnose and treat a wide range of problems including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sexual abuse, ADD/ADHD, grief, suicidal impulses, addiction, substance abuse, stress management, self-esteem issues, emotional health and family, parenting and marital issues. In addition to individuals, they can treat couples and families. They do not prescribe medications but can refer to a psychiatrist.
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, (LMFT) are therapists with a Master’s Degree in Psychology and post-master’s experience (similar to the Licensed Mental Health Counselor) but with more specialized training in issues regarding marriage and family. They can also treat all the issues listed above.
- Licensed Social Workers (MSW, LCSW) also have a Master’s Degree in Social Work and post-master’s experience. They specialize in providing services to help their clients’ psychological and social functioning. Social workers can also treat the above therapy issues. In addition, they are specially trained to provide counseling and resources to help a person better function in their environment and relationships.
- Pastoral Counselors (Rev., M Div, Pastor) are usually licensed or ordained ministers who also have training in counseling. Their emphasis tends to focus on biblical principles, spiritual formation and direction, and improving relationships. It is important to note that, depending on how or where the Pastor was ordained, they may not have been required to have any training in counseling at all. It is dangerous to assume that just because someone is a Pastor, they are equipped to counsel you in areas of mental health.
(NOTE: States have similar licenses but may use different license names/initials and may have different requirements. For example, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in the State of Washington is similar to a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in the State of Illinois, but there may be some differences. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification of the initials or degree of a professional when scheduling to see them.)
How can I determine I’ve found the right therapist for me?
In an effort to answer some of these concerns, I will share how I found my own therapist. Yes, therapists need therapists too! We all have injuries in life. The better healed I am, the better therapist I will be. Experiencing therapy also gives me empathy for my clients who are undergoing this process.
Here are the things that were important to me as I looked for a therapist:
- Covered – She was listed on my insurance plan.
- Competence – She went to a respected university and has a good work history.
- Conviction – There are certain moral principles which are non-negotiable for me. I didn’t want to wrestle with these issues during therapy, but needed someone who shared this baseline with me so they would be better able to advise me. Since my faith informs my decisions, choosing a therapist who was also a Christian was THE most important aspect for me.
- Compassion – I found that she is a very caring individual. This is also critical for me. If I felt that the therapist didn’t really care, I would go elsewhere.
- Connection – She and I “hit it off.” This makes therapy so much more pleasant.
- Consistency – She is dependable and reliable. I know what to expect when I go to therapy.
- Convenience – Her office is within about a half hour commute. I was willing to travel this distance for a great therapist.
Finding a great therapist has been a huge benefit in my own life. Hopefully, these thoughts will also help you navigate the maze of finding a therapist who is a good fit for you. As a counselor, I know that I have the opportunity to change lives daily! Sometimes, like braces, it is slow and incremental. Other times, like heart surgery, it is critical and immediate. Still for others it is like physical therapy – just plain hard work, long-term, and endurance-building.
It takes courage to begin the counseling process. Often, we will experience resistance from within ourselves and from others. This is normal and to be expected. But the rewards are well worth the risk as these life changes can be deep, permanent, and enriching not only for you, but for your loved ones and your marriage. And even one changed life can change the course of events for generations yet to come!
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