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How to Find a Therapist

Whether an adult or child needs therapy, finding the right therapist takes research, patience, and intuition.
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"It used to be that a psychiatrist was considered most qualified because he or she had more education," Turner tells WebMD. "But that's not true anymore. Some psychiatrists got their licenses 25 years ago and haven't kept up. Many psychiatrists who are trained today just handle medications. You can have a primary care doctor do that -- it's not like psychiatrists are indispensable!"

Turner refers patients to professional counselors and social workers when appropriate. They often specialize in counseling couples and families and coordinating group therapy sessions, he says. "Some are good, some aren't. Some are excellent."

"Credentials aren't everything," says Robert Baker, PhD, a psychologist and program director of the behavioral medicine unit at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans. "Even people with great credentials aren't necessarily great therapists. They may be smart, but that doesn't mean they have good common sense."

Where to Start?

Collect Names. "Don't start with three names from your managed care company," advises Avrum Geurin Weiss, PhD, author of the book, Experiential Psychotherapy: A Symphony of Selves. He is a child/adolescent psychologist and director the Pine River Psychotherapy Training Institute in Atlanta.

Very likely, you don't have the company's entire list of providers, Weiss tells WebMD. "Insist on getting the whole provider list. Then ask friends and colleagues if they know a psychologist or psychiatrist who could make recommendations from that list."

He gets plenty of calls from people who say, "I have Aetna insurance. I know you're not an Aetna provider, but can you look at my list?"

"They fax it to me, and I make recommendations. I do it all the time," he says.

Other sources:

  • Call a university psychiatry or psychology department and ask recommendations of people trained in that program. "At least that way you know they're under scrutiny," says Turner.
  • If you're moving to a new city, ask your current therapist for referrals, or have him check with colleagues.
  • Call a large clinic; ask the receptionist for recommendations. "They know who specializes in what," Baker tells WebMD. "They can match you up pretty well."
  • Check with friends and family.

If you're embarrassed about asking for help, get over it, advises Weiss. "Get past the stigma. The outcome's too important."

Also, check with professional associations to learn about a therapist's expertise -- whether they provide psychotherapy, if they treat children, etc. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association both provide such lists for people wanting to find a therapist.

The First Appointment

Ask questions: How long has the therapist been in practice? How many patients have had your problem? What were the results? Ask about policies, fees, payment. "But don't bargain hunt for mental health care," says Weiss.

"You find a therapist in the same way you choose any health care professional," he tells WebMD. "They must be professional, credentialed, and competent, with no lawsuits against them. And they must be an intuitive fit -- you can't underestimate the absolute value of feeling a good intuitive match with somebody. Also, if you ask them questions about themselves, and they get defensive, go somewhere else."

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