Help Is Out There: How to Find the Best Therapist For Your Mental Health Needs

In June 2016, a group of DC hospitals and healthcare providers surveyed to better understand the District’s top health concerns. The resulting report, the Community Health Needs Assessment, identified four significant healthcare challenges. Mental illness was among those four. In fact, “the prevention and treatment of psychological, emotional, and relational issues that lead to higher quality of life” was ranked as the number one priority.

Survey participants expressed severe concerns about the state of mental health in the area, specifically citing the stigma associated with seeking mental and behavioral health services. As we’ve previously shared, stigma is just one of many reasons people are reluctant to reach out to a professional therapist for assistance.

Our team at The Therapy Group of DC understands that deciding to seek out the services of a mental health therapist or licensed professional counselor can be daunting in itself. The next step–finding the right potential therapist for your specific needs and preferences–shouldn’t deter your progress. However, we recognize that when you and your therapist are a great fit, your chances of experiencing life-changing, successful treatment increase exponentially.

The process of identifying a best-fit therapist requires more than a Google search of “therapists near me,” although a convenient counseling center location that allows for easier access to appointments is undoubtedly an advantage. Compare this endeavor to auditioning actors for a play, using a dating app to find your perfect match, or interviewing candidates for a job. You’re not obligated to select the first applicant. There are several factors you should consider and a few details to research before starting your search for and review of mental health professionals.

Understand what you want–and don’t want–in a therapist

Finding the Best Therapist in DCYou most likely have some underlying, perhaps still nebulous, feelings about what qualities you’d like your ideal therapist to possess. Maybe you want to talk to someone with a gentle voice, someone who believes in the therapeutic qualities of mindfulness and meditation, or a therapist that incorporates or is open to new age or experimental approaches. Perhaps you’d prefer to talk about your childhood and resolve issues in your past or, on the other hand, you’re going through something right now that you need help working through. Maybe you want someone you can check in with every Friday to share the past week’s experiences. You may even feel strongly about speaking to a man over a woman, or an older person rather than a younger practitioner. Even a therapist’s office hours could factor into your preferences.

These aren’t silly considerations; if you aren’t entirely comfortable and able to feel open and vulnerable with your chosen therapist, your therapeutic experience will suffer. A professional therapist will not be offended by your preferences; the best therapists in DC will even work with you to uncover and bring to light what characteristics you’d like to see in your ideal provider, and perhaps also refer you to a colleague who might be a better fit.

Consider the therapist’s approach to therapy

There are five broad categories of psychotherapy approaches, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Each relies upon a different theory to provide a roadmap for treatment. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on what people think rather than what they do, and gently challenge and work to change a patient’s self-limiting beliefs to change how they think and what they do. Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy emphasize discovering unconscious motivations and meanings to change problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts. Holistic and integrative therapies incorporate more than one of the five broad approaches.

While it’s not necessary for you as a patient to understand or even know about these particular methods, you will want to know if the therapist sticks exclusively to one approach and follows the theories of one researcher or scientist, or if he or she tailors his or her techniques to suit a patient’s situation and personality. No one method is better than another, and your selected therapist’s approach may very well change over time as your relationship evolves.

Look for therapists who specialize in or have treated patients with your specific needs

Therapy is not one-size-fits-all. People seek therapy for any number of reasons, and although some therapists specialize in one particular type of treatment, many can treat a variety of issues. Therapists help patients work through anxiety, depression, careers, marriage difficulties, substance abuse, addiction, sexuality, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, stress, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, panic attacks, grief, LGBTQ, finances, PTSD, parenting, low self-esteem…or a combination of these or other areas. You should never feel that your problem isn’t worthy of a therapist’s time. Even if something that’s bothering you isn’t on a particular therapist’s list of treatments or areas of specialty, it’s still worthwhile to ask the provider if he or she can help.

Searching for a DC TherapistTwo common differentiators among licensed counselors are whether they primarily serve individuals, couples, families, or groups and if they specialize in working with children and adolescents or adults. The training and processes for each are entirely different. For example, individual treatment involves creating an effective one-on-one therapeutic relationship between the patient and the therapist; the focus is on the patient’s personal development and self-reflection. Couples counseling, however, involves an in-depth, intense emphasis on the dynamics of the partners’ relationship with one another, including their communication patterns, habits, and routines. The same applies to family and group therapy. Specific skills and theories drive successful treatment for those types of psychotherapy treatment. Lastly, training to work with children and young adolescents is distinct, and we suggest seeking a specialist when searching for help with your children or teens.

Ask for referrals and recommendations

Social media has made crowdsourcing–asking for help from your personal and professional networks– more accessible and more popular than ever. Asking for advice for mental health issues may or may not be a question you’d want to pose to your thousands of Facebook friends, but close friends and family can be excellent resources for referrals to a therapy professional they’ve either worked with personally or about whom they’ve heard great things.

Ask Friends for Therapist Recommendations in DCA quick aside about family and friends–most people have at least one or two close friends or family members who might also serve as trustworthy sounding boards and emotionally supportive confidants. If, perhaps, these individuals offer their time and ears as a substitute for therapy, remember that working with a professionally trained therapist holds many advantages over sharing your problems with a friend. In therapy, the entire session is solely devoted to you; the therapist won’t interject his or her problems for your opinion. Therapists are also ethically and legally bound to maintain confidentiality, so it’s far easier for patients to be completely open, honest, and uncensored–which is sometimes hard, if not impossible, to do with a friend or relative.

Beyond acquaintances, other professionals with whom you have existing relationships, like your primary care physician or attorney, may be good sources of recommendations. Some business owners and schools may also offer resources for therapy referrals; employee assistance programs, school nurses, and college mental health counselors may provide helpful information or recommendations.

If you want to double check any recommendations, there are always online review and rating sites where you can see what other people have reported about their experience with a therapist. Although some reviews can be reasonably informative or helpful, others may express unfairly over-the-top negative comments that may be irrelevant to your search, so don’t depend upon just one or two opinions.

Explore insurance coverage and payment options

By no means should your finances–or lack thereof–keep you from seeking therapy. Unfortunately, a report by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that not being able to afford the therapy costs is the reason that a staggering 50 percent of adults with mental health issues did not seek treatment. This statistic includes people who held insurance plans that didn’t include coverage for mental healthcare.

In 2017, DC-based TheHill.com reported that although the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity Act were both expected to ensure that mental health expenses were reimbursed on par with other medical conditions, many insurance plans still don’t include this coverage. Additionally, many insured patients who do indeed have mental health coverage don’t realize that they are eligible.

As part of your therapist vetting and selection process, be sure to contact your health care insurance provider to determine exactly what sort of coverage or reimbursement you may be eligible to receive. Most therapists in DC, including The Therapy Group of DC, are fee-for-service practices, which means that payment by check, cash, credit, or Health Service Account (HSA) is required at the time you see your therapist. However, many insurance plans will reimburse you for the majority of the cost.

If you find that therapy is not included in your policy, don’t let that deter your efforts to find the right provider. Some therapy practices will offer payment plans or price treatment on a sliding scale based on your income and ability to pay. Additionally, there are several lower fee therapy opportunities in Washington, DC, but they aren’t easy to find. We are keenly aware of the need for affordable therapy in DC, so after five years of planning and dreaming, we created the Capital Therapy Project to bring compassionate, respectful, and results-oriented therapy to more of DC.

Check out credentials and experience

As you deepen and narrow your research for the right therapist, you’ll no doubt come across practice websites and directories listing practitioners with a variety of letters following their names and a list of degrees and certifications. Understanding the importance of each of these qualifications will help you to determine which is the best fit for your needs. 

Finding Therapist DCPsychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners can offer prescription medications as part of a treatment program but, usually, don’t provide therapy services. Psychologists (denoted by the Psy.D. or Ph.D. credential) can’t write prescriptions but are the most extensively trained to provide valuable therapy for most mental health issues. Family and marriage therapists, licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), and licensed professional counselors (LPCs) usually hold a master’s degree in their field. However, it’s not necessary to be overly concerned about whether your therapist has a doctoral degree or a master’s or from which university they graduated. Studies have shown that the type of degree she or he holds doesn’t necessarily predict a more or less effective outcome.

What might be more significant to your search is your therapist’s experience–how many years they’ve been in practice, how many patients they’ve worked with, and whether or not they’ve worked with people with your concerns, conditions, or needs. Some of this information, like years of experience, may be available on the therapist’s website or his or her profile in a directory of providers. However, this is also something you should inquire about when you first speak with the therapist or someone at his or her practice. As with degrees, we urge you not to be overly swayed by a therapist’s level of experience. It is an important consideration. However, it is a consideration among many, and we often tell people to pay attention to their gut when selecting a therapist.

Trust your gut

Perhaps the most crucial factor in finding a “best fit” therapist is the chemistry you feel–or don’t feel–with that person. Chemistry is that gut feeling you get when you know something is right or wrong, and sometimes it’s difficult to define. Although you may have already determined what type of therapist you’d prefer–a female, specializing in anxiety disorders, who accepts your type of insurance, and will help you work through a traumatic event in your childhood–you won’t know if you have chemistry until you interact with them. Some people even have a gut reaction to a photo of a potential therapist (“She looks nice” or “He reminds me of my favorite uncle”). If your intuition tells you that you’ll never be able to focus on therapy because you’re too busy trying to make yourself like your therapist, you’ll effectively be wasting the provider’s and your valuable time.

Remember, though; you’re not looking for a best friend. A good therapist will challenge you–kindly, of course–and help you work toward your psychological and behavioral goals, but she or he won’t be sharing their own lives with you. So while you do want to feel a level of warmth and welcome when you meet or talk with them, he or she should certainly not be someone with whom you exchange Snapchats or Instagram messages.

Psychology Today recently identified ten characteristics of a “good” therapist. In addition to the mutual understanding that you’re not entering into a friendship, a good therapist should apply new scientific knowledge to your care, and never guarantee that he or she will fundamentally change you. A good therapist will listen intently, provide honest and timely feedback, and will never judge you based on your feelings, ideals, beliefs, or any other factor. They will offer you support, but encourage you to do the heavy lifting of mental and behavioral work. Moreover, over time, your dependence upon the therapist should decrease, not grow. Even without memorizing this specific list of qualities, your gut will tell you if you have a good experience, and if this therapist is indeed the best fit for you given your current struggles and situation.

Trust is key to a strong and productive patient-therapist relationship. You should trust that they are listening and are committed to helping you. You should trust that they are taking you seriously and that you can be completely open, “let it all hang out,” without being concerned about confidentiality. Knowing that you will come to experience a high level of trust with your new therapist may not be something you will immediately feel with just a short introduction, but you should still trust your gut. If something feels slightly off within that time, you should probably look elsewhere.

What about these new online therapy options and therapy apps?

You may have seen commercials featuring Olympic legend Michael Phelps promoting the benefits of a mobile phone app that provides online therapy via text. It’s no surprise that a community of professional therapists has found a way to offer a version of their services to a generation that was born with and are never without a mobile device. Among that age group–18- to 25-year-olds–only 35 percent of individuals with mental or behavioral issues seek treatment. Could online access to a therapist help to facilitate the treatment they need?

Dubbed “alternative counseling,” apps like Talkspace, 7 Cups, and BetterHelp offer “chat” or “active listening” through text, video conference, messaging, or phone call. Availability of therapists and contact methods are dictated by the selected monthly plan. More and more mental health services and targeting millennials are appearing in the app stores, and millions of people are trying them out.

Therapists recognize the appeal of these options among not only younger folks but also busy professionals or others who are too busy to make appointments or are more comfortable easing into the therapy experience without having to meet with someone face-to-face. The theory is that some therapy is better than no therapy.

However, some practitioners have serious concerns about delivering and receiving therapy via an app. Despite the American Psychological Association’s clear Guidelines for the Practice of Telepsychology, some less knowledgeable or less ethical providers are still staffing their phone lines with non-credentialed staff or allowing therapists to practice in areas in which they are not licensed. Plus, communication without some sort of video component eliminates a crucial part of therapy: observing body language. Lastly, individuals with more serious issues–those considering suicide, for example, or working through a traumatic experience–would find much more benefit from speaking to a therapist in person.

If an app is a route, you consider for therapy, all of the factors for consideration that have been noted here still apply. You should feel free to ask the person you’re speaking with about their qualifications, verify their credentials online, and trust your intuition.

Pragmatically speaking, it may be more difficult to maintain engagement with an online therapist. If you feel your enthusiasm for online therapy decreasing over time, recognize that this is a commonly observed pattern among those who participate in online therapy. It is not necessarily indicative of your commitment to mental health treatment as a whole or therapy’s ability to be an effective mechanism for you to make changes in your life. It is more about the online method of how therapy is being delivered.  

Ready to start your search for the right mental health therapist?

Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to get started on your search for the right mental health professional. When you’ve narrowed down your list of candidates, contact them via their website or give their office a call. If everything seems right (remember to trust your intuition!), go ahead and make an appointment for a full counseling session, then evaluate how you feel.

After that first session, you should have a better idea if you’ll be comfortable talking to them and if they seem to understand your needs. You’ll know more about their style and approach, and if this suits you and your personality. Moreover, of course, you should feel a sense of optimism and hope–that they can help you resolve your mental and behavioral health issues.

The Therapy Group of DC is here to help you find your best fit for therapy. Meet our DC Therapist team, and learn more about our innovative process, where we work with you to ensure you’re matched with the right professional, and that we’re building a trusting, warm, and respectful collaboration with you.