What to look for in a psychotherapist
Psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”) is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Most psychotherapy takes place with a licensed and trained mental health care professional and a patient meeting one on one or with other patients in a group setting.
Someone might seek out psychotherapy for different reasons:
- You might be dealing with severe or long-term stress from a job or family situation, the loss of a loved one, or relationship or other family issues. Or you may have symptoms with no physical explanation: changes in sleep or appetite, low energy, a lack of interest or pleasure in activities that you once enjoyed, persistent irritability, or a sense of discouragement or hopelessness that won’t go away.
- A health professional may suspect or have diagnosed a condition such as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress or other disorder and recommended psychotherapy as a first treatment or to go along with medication.
- You may be seeking treatment for a family member or child who has been diagnosed with a condition affecting mental health and for whom a health professional has recommended treatment.
An exam by your primary care practitioner can ensure there is nothing in your overall health that would explain your or a loved one’s symptoms.
What to Consider When Looking for a Therapist
Therapists have different professional backgrounds and specialties.There are resources at the end of this material that can help you find out about the different credentials of therapists and resources for locating therapists.
There are many different types of psychotherapy.Different therapies are often variations on an established approach, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. There is no formal approval process for psychotherapies as there is for the use of medications in medicine. For many therapies, however, research involving large numbers of patients has provided evidence that treatment is effective for specific disorders. These “evidence-based therapies” have been shown in research to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other disorders.
The particular approach a therapist uses depends on the condition being treated and the training and experience of the therapist.Also, therapists may combine and adapt elements of different approaches. The health information pages for specific disorders on the NIMH website list some of the evidence based therapies for those disorders.
One goal of establishing an evidence base for psychotherapies is to prevent situations in which a person receives therapy for months or years with no benefit. If you have been in therapy and feel you are not getting better, talk to your therapist, or look into other practitioners or approaches. The object of therapy is to gain relief from symptoms and improve quality of life.
Once you have identified one or more possible therapists, a preliminary conversation with a therapist can help you get an idea of how treatment will proceed and whether you feel comfortable with the therapist.Rapport and trust are important. Discussions in therapy are deeply personal and it’s important that you feel comfortable and trusting with the therapist and have confidence in his or her expertise. Consider asking the following questions:
- What are the credentials and experience of the therapist? Does he or she have a specialty?
- What approach will the therapist take to help you? Does he or she practice a particular type of therapy? What can the therapist tell you about the rationale for the therapy and the evidence base?
- Does the therapist have experience in diagnosing and treating the age group (for example, a child) and the specific condition for which treatment is being sought? If a child is the patient, how will parents be involved in treatment?
- What are the goals of therapy? Does the therapist recommend a specific time frame or number of sessions? How will progress be assessed and what happens if you (or the therapist) feel you aren’t starting to feel better?
- Will there be homework?
- Are medications an option? How will medications be prescribed if the therapist is not an M.D.?
- Are our meetings confidential? How can this be assured?
Source: Information adapted from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) open licence.