3 Key Steps to Finding the Right Therapist for You

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
Woman Battling Depression in a Therapy Session
You may have to do some interviewing before you find a therapist that you're comfortable with. FatCamera/Getty Images

Taka W. (who asked that we withhold her last name) of Sandy Springs, Georgia, has seen a number of therapists since her sister died more than two decades ago, but only in 2017 did she finally connect with one who was able to help her start the healing process from childhood traumas, the loss of her parents and sister and a painful divorce. "She practically saved my life," she says, adding that she and her counselor enjoy a "wonderful relationship." Taka's one of millions of people around the world who turn to therapy to heal the wounds of the past, find better ways to cope and hopefully set a better tone for future generations.

The Covid-19 pandemic greatly increased the demand for therapy. Many Americans tried it for the first time during the last two or three years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 21.6 percent of adults in the U.S. sought and received some type of mental health services in 2021, compared with 19.2 percent in 2019. A 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association said psychologists reported "a large increase in demand for treatment of anxiety and depression compared with last year," according to a press release.


If you're new to therapy, you might be wondering how you find a good therapist. Looking at a list from your insurance provider may seem impersonal. And you might be uncomfortable asking for recommendations from friends. Even if you do find a psychologist, a poor match can lead to stilted, ineffective sessions that don't develop into a productive relationship.

"The best therapist for you is someone who fits your personality and who's able to understand and help you with the particular issues you want to work on," says Boston-based psychotherapist Angela Ficken. "You don't always find 'the one' on the first date. Not every therapist out there is going to be 'the one,' either."

Doing a bit of prep work on the front end can lead to a better pairing. Natalia T. (who asked that we withhold her last name) of San Diego, California, has seen a few therapists over the years, some of whom have worked out, and some that haven't. "I would recommend that everyone does a little reflection before they look for a therapist to identify what issues are bringing them to seek therapy," she says. "This reflection can help ground your search."

Fortunately, the mental health industry has caught onto the truth that patient/provider matchmaking is no easy feat, and so the process has evolved. Here are some effective ways to find a good therapist, from people who really know.


1. Curate a List of Therapist Options

There are several ways to find names of potential therapists. Probably the easiest is to check with your health insurance company for a list of in-network providers. These can be subdivided according to location, specialty and many other details, which may leave you feeling overwhelmed.

"Try including some words [in your search] to describe the type of therapy or the issue you are seeking to address. For example, 'divorce recovery therapy in Santa Rosa, CA' will give you more specific results of therapists who specialize in working with this type of issue," emails marriage and family therapist Angela Sitka, LMFT, who lives in Santa Rosa, California.


If you don't have insurance (or don't want to use it), you can turn to an online directory, like the ones provided by Psychology Today or Mental Health Match. Ohio-based adult and adolescent therapist Allie Kidd especially prefers the latter. "It has a series of questions (multiple choice) that quite literally finds you a therapist/s who matches with what you're looking for," she says via email, noting that location, fees and mental health issues are incorporated into the form. "It also asks if there are traits that would be desired in a therapist such as religion, sexual orientation and gender."

Many people also opt to ask friends and family for recommendations, much as they would for a plumber or electrician. Chances are, if a therapist has been effective for a loved one, they could be the same for you, is the thinking.

However, "keep in mind that the therapeutic relationship is highly personal and just because [your friend] jibed with a certain therapist you may not. Asking more detailed questions like "what did you like most" or "what did you like least" or even about specific things one might be looking for can be more useful," says psychologist Tia Butler, Psy.D. of Largo, Florida.

Denise Crean
Denise Crean, shown in her Farmingville, New York home Oct. 14, 2021, participated in a Stony Brook Medicine support group for those with "long COVID."
John Paraskevas/Newsday RM via Getty Images


2. Do a Phone Interview

Once you've narrowed your list of prospects to three or four, it's time to interview them. Most of the experts we spoke with said therapists usually provide a short (15 minute) free phone consultation, during which a prospective patient can ask questions and generally suss out whether they vibe with a therapist, or not.

"Research shows that the therapeutic relationship is the most important factor in the outcomes of therapy for clients. I hear it time and time again, people either not benefiting from therapy or dropping out of therapy early due to not connecting well with their therapist," says Sitka.


Since your time is limited, keep a list of questions handy. These can cover topics like:

  • Specialties. Does the therapist have experience or specialize in the type of therapy that you need? Find out how long they've been practicing this specialty, and why they were drawn to it.
  • Treatment style. There are many different psychotherapy treatment styles out there to choose from. Do a little bit of front-end research on the various treatment options out there (behavioral, cognitive, integrative, etc.) Then discuss them with each potential therapist. It's helpful to be self-aware. "For example, would you like a therapist who is proactive during therapy sessions, who makes [you] feel more like [you're having] conversations? Or are you looking for a therapist who is more passive, giving you most of the session to talk and providing small pockets of feedback periodically?" says psychotherapist Ficken. While you're at it, find out what their professional opinion is on coping mechanisms, medications and other therapy tools.
  • Personal style. This one was a biggie for Taka. "I don't think the other therapists were effective because they couldn't relate to me as a young, Black woman," she explains, noting that her first few therapists were white, middle-aged women, who "couldn't relate to my upbringing, the generational Blackness." Her current therapist is a Black woman who comes from similar circumstances, and as a result they relate to each other. "Because we come from the same background it really helped to foster and build our relationship," Taka says. "It made it easier for me to open up." This might not be the case for everyone, but a woman who has difficulty opening up to men, for example, might consider a female therapist, or whatever the preference may be.
  • Miscellaneous details. Can the therapist do virtual sessions, or are they in-person only? Is the location convenient, and do they offer flexible hours that work with your schedule? Do they take insurance, and whether they do or don't, what will your personal cost be? How far in advance do they book out? These and other details are important to cover before deciding on a therapist.

During calls, make notes to keep the details straight. Then, think about how you felt talking to each therapist. If someone sounds bored or disinterested over the phone, they aren't likely to be much better in person. If you didn't connect with any of them, keep looking.


3. Speak Up if Something's Off

Once you've identified a therapist and started sessions, don't be afraid to speak up if something isn't working for you after a time. "A good therapist should not take this as an insult but as a positive step in the patient taking an active approach in their therapy," says Matthew Miller with Behavioral Health Services at Campbell County Health via email. Explain what the concern or frustration is, then give the therapist an opportunity to respond and tweak the treatment plan, if needed. Holistic psychotherapist Christina P. Kantzavelos offers a list of questions to ask yourself as therapy progress:

  • Do I feel safe talking about anything?
  • Do I feel completely comfortable?
  • Do I feel supported?
  • Are my goals, and treatment plan being revisited as needed?
  • Do I feel like I'm meeting the goals created in my treatment plan?
  • Do I still feel like this is leading to personal growth?

On the other hand, some counselors point out that effective therapy may not always make you feel good. "Good therapy challenges you — you should expect to feel uncomfortable! If, after this discussion, you still aren't sure they're a great fit, let them know. They'll understand," emails Jessica Frick, a licensed professional counselor with Metamorphosis Counseling.