For most people, making the decision to begin counseling comes with much contemplation and time before finally taking the leap. This first step can be tough enough on its own and then you are quickly faced with the new task of finding a counselor.
Discovering who will be a good fit for who you are and what you need can be difficult and confusing.
I’d like to offer you a few tips to help you on your search; to make this process easy to understand, and help you find the right counselor to begin feeling your stronger self again!
Keep in mind, this process takes time.
When I think about clients that have found a counselor that meets their therapeutic needs and is a good fit to their personality and comfort-ability; I always picture a dancing couple in my head. Counselors and clients that fit together comfortably remind me of a sweet old married couple dancing on effortlessly on the dance floor.
Just like a perfect couple that has found their rhythm together, they too had to do some searching. And probably had a few bad dance partners along the way. Finding the perfect fit in your counselor can take time. Similar to dating, we need to know ourselves and what we are looking for in a counselor to best support us in exploring ourselves and reaching our goals.
On your search, you will learn what you don’t want in a counselor and that’s OK too. It's expected that finding the right counselor can be a dance that might be awkward at the start, but over time you should feel that your counselor can lead, guide, and help you to feel at ease. This individual should help you trust yourself and begin to understand, forgive, and allow yourself to grow to your fullest potential.
Here are a few elements to consider when starting the search for a counselor.
Let's start with qualifications.
#1 - Search for counselors that are clinically licensed.
Look for -> Licensed Clinical Social Worker-LCSW, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor-LCPC, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Mental Health Counselor-LMHC
A counselor that is clinically licensed will provide you with a professional that has undergone extensive clinical supervision beyond their graduate studies (typically 3,000 hours or more). This is important so you know the counselor has experienced more than textbook training. Real in-person experience working with clients while receiving supervision with an expert in the field ensures they have the best training to support you.
#2 - Look for counselors that have a graduate degree in the field of counseling.
Look for -> Masters in Social Work, Masters in Mental Health Counseling, Masters in Psychology, Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy
Unfortunately, there are actually people in the world claiming to be a counselor or therapist without the proper training and educational requirements, so be sure to check their credentials.
#3 - Think about how you communicate and your bandwidth for work outside of therapy.
You don’t have to be an expert on therapy techniques but it is a good idea to have an understanding of how you’d like your therapy to flow.
-> Do I want be focused on solutions to move myself forward?
-> Do I want be given homework to work on the techniques discussed in session?
-> Do I want to better understand my personal and relational dynamics?
-> Do I want support in controlling my thoughts and emotions?
Having some preference or thoughts about the type of therapy would make you feel most comfortable and support the goals you have for yourself will move you one step closer to finding the right counselor to meet your needs.
#4 - Look for a specialty.
Most counselors have specific niches, or specializations. Think about the goals you have for yourself and search for a counselor that is an expert in the area you are looking to improve.
Do you want to improve how you feel about yourself or work on re-wiring your thoughts from the ground up?
Do you need treatment for a specific mental health condition or are you looking for guidance on goals that you have for yourself and your future?
Most counselors will typically share their specialties with you on their personal websites or Psychology Today profiles.
Where to start your search
It can be helpful to start with recommendations when looking for a new counselor, similar to how we look to people we trust to refer us to a medical practitioner. Doctors, friends, and family typically know you the best and might know a good fit that would support you and what you are looking for.
Before you decide on a therapist, do your research.
While you're on their website:
Do they have a blog? Read a few articles and get a feel for their voice. (If they don't have a blog, find out if the therapist is on a social site like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, or LinkedIn.)
Ask yourself, "Do I feel as if they are personally connecting and speaking to me through their writing?"
If the answer is yes, it is likely you will feel just as comfortable in person.
When you call to schedule your first appointment:
Think back to #3 - how you communicate and your bandwidth for work outside of therapy.
Write your questions down and be prepared to ask them over the phone or when you send an email inquiring about availability.
Remember - this is your chance to interview your counselor and ask them questions.
When I receive calls from potential clients the main question asked is,
“Can you tell me about yourself and your experiences?”
People want to know about me as a counselor and person. They want to be comfortable with me before we even sit down to work together. They feel it's important to understand my professional experiences and approach to counseling when working with clients and if that approach will work for them.
Ask about availability and cost per session.
It's important to ask about future sessions and the expected fee for each session when you call/email. Therapy can usually take between 6 - 10 sessions (Please note this is an average, every client is different and the number of sessions varies from person to person) to really work through your goals. It is important to find a counselor with session availability that works for you and your schedule.
Nothing is worse than thinking you’ve discovered the perfect counselor and then finding out it will be ages until you are able to see them. With the recent uptick in people seeking out therapists, wait lists can be lengthy.
MDW has a post worth reading, What To Do While You're On A Therapist's Wait List.
In regards to cost, ask about amount and what type of payment is accepted. Therapists can bill your insurance.
What if I can't afford therapy?
It doesn’t make sense to improve one are of your life and then create more stress for yourself financially. Ask the counselor if they offer a sliding scale (payments that are agreed upon based on what your budget will allow) or offer a standard fee per session.
My practice offers a BRAVE + STRONG financial assistance program that is available for clients (with or without insurance) experiencing financial hardship. As your collecting information, be sure to ask!
I've met with a counselor, now what?
Just because you’ve met with a counselor once doesn’t meet they have to be your counselor. You can take as long as you’d like to decide if you think that this counselor will be a good fit for you. To help in this process you want to consider:
-> Reflecting on how the counselor made you feel during your session together.
A few questions to ask yourself after your first session:
Did the counselor’s vibe match yours?
As a therapist, it’s not usually a good fit if the client is looking for someone that is very serious and cold (I have the old picture of the client laying on a couch and the therapist sitting behind them in my head). If a client is looking for this style of counseling, they won’t find it with me. I engage with my clients, laugh with them, and partner with them through their journey.
Did you feel respected in the session by the counselor?
Did you feel the counselor genuinely was interested in what brought you in to see them? Did they express empathy and seem connected with what you shared? In all strong relationships, the existence of mutual respect has to be present and this holds true in a client/counselor relationship.
Do you feel that you can trust this counselor?
Was confidentiality explained to you? By law, confidentiality is required of your counselor, necessary to build a trusting relationship, and creates a safe space to allow personal exploration and growth to take place.
Now-give yourself a pat on the back!
After you’ve decided to see a counselor, completed research to find your best match, and met for the first time - be sure to give yourself some much-deserved credit for all your hard work. These initial steps in the process seem simple, however, they lay a foundation to unlock the path toward future happiness, personal growth, healing, and self-improvement.
Kelly Jacobson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founder of Stronger Therapeutic Counseling Services, Inc. in Batavia, Illinois. Kelly's modern approach to therapy includes offering consistent tips and tangible tools that can be easily be practiced.
For more information about counseling services with Kelly, visit the Stronger Therapeutic Counseling Services website.
A version of this article was originally published on the Stronger Therapeutic Counseling Services blog on October 31, 2019.