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When Self-Care Isn’t Enough: How to Shop for the Right Therapist for You

Amelia McBain  |  December 19, 2018

We all know self-care is important. Having a quiet night in or buying yourself a bath bomb can be great ways to relieve stress.

But what do you do when self-care isn’t enough?

You find a therapist. That, in and of itself, can be scary. It’s hard enough to feel comfortable with a stranger, let alone tell them all of your problems and worries, but we have to take mental health seriously. About 50% of adults in the U.S. will have had some form of mental illness diagnosed in their lives. And we women are 40% more likely to develop depression than men. Combined, those statistics explain why dealing with your mental health isn’t the taboo topic it once was.

According to the World Health Organization, mental illness costs the U.S. economy $1 trillion a year due to loss of productivity. Serious mental illnesses result in lost income totaling to $192.3 billion a year.

And of course, you don’t need to be feeling down to find a therapist. Therapy can help you gain clarity in your life in good times and in bad. “Some people wait until they’re in trouble until they find a therapist, other times people realize that they just want to improve their life,” said Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist and performance coach in Manhattan. “It’s not always about feeling like you’re broken or damaged or a mess.”

Unfortunately, finding a good therapist can be harder than it should be. For something that’s meant to soothe your nerves, it can be nerve-wracking. Here are four suggestions on how to shop around for, and find, the best therapist for you.

Know What You’re Looking for Going in

Just like how shopping is easier when you have a list of what you’re looking for when you head to the grocery store or the online boutique, you should think about what kinds of things you want to work on or talk about before you start looking for a therapist. It will help you in the search, because there are many different kinds of therapists with many different specialties. “It’s really important to not assume that all therapists and therapies are created equally,” said Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, professor of Psychology at Emory University. Therapists specialize in pretty much everything imaginable, from certain mental health disorders like PTSD and anxiety to more generalized issues like LGBTQ-related mental health problems, workplace anxiety and, yes, finances. Figuring out what kind of therapist you need before you start your search can make your quest an easier one.

Ask Around for Recommendations

If you know people that have great therapists and feel comfortable asking them how they found them, go for it. That same approach may work for you. Therapists with particular specialties can also be located through the associations or trade groups they belong to. Some — like the American Psychological Association — have ZIP code locators that can help you find people close by. (The Financial Therapy Association, which has fewer members, allows you to look up by state.) To keep your out-of-pocket costs at a minimum, it also pays to look at your health insurance company’s website for therapists in your area to find ones that are in-network. And check out Zocdoc to read reviews of particular practices, plus make an appointment online.

Try a Few Out

“I usually recommend people do some research online and call a few therapists,” said Alpert. “You can tell a lot in a five- to 10-minute phone call.” If finding a therapist is like shopping, think of this as trying them on. Do they fit? Are you comfortable?  “Find a therapist you click with,” said Lilienfeld. “We know from a lot of research that the strength of the emotional bond between therapist and the client is a predictor.

“Be a discerning consumer, and seek out therapists who are providing high-quality services,” he added. “If you feel that the person is not supportive of you, or not understanding, or dismissive, then that may be something you want to take into account.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Move On

Just like scarves and heavy coats aren’t necessary after winter, you don’t need to keep seeing a therapist once they’ve helped you with that you needed. “Therapy shouldn’t last forever,” said Alpert. If you find that you have reached your goals, or don’t have much to talk about anymore, you can move on with the knowledge that you can always come back.

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