How to Find the Right Counselor for You

Five Things to Look for in a Therapist:

I compare finding the right counselor to finding a best friend or partner – not everyone is going to be a good match and sometimes you might even deal with a few bad ones! However, this does not mean you give up. One bad apple shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch, right?!

With technology today, we have everything at our fingertips. Easily accessible knowledge that makes it even easier to find a counselor…But it can be difficult to find one that is right for you. You don’t want a counselor that is convenient, you want someone who is good.

With technology today, we have everything at our fingertips. Easily accessible knowledge that makes it even easier to find a counselor…But it can be difficult to find one that is right for you. You don’t want a counselor that is convenient, you want someone who is good.

So, there you are, making a big & brave decision to seek help…now what? Here are five tips to ask yourself before and during your first meeting:

1. Decide what kind of professional to see

Anyone else confused by the differences between a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, and social worker?

Counselor/Therapist: You want to look for someone who is licensed, which may present with different acronyms in your state. Typically, you will see Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor (LISAC), or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). These individuals are at the master’s level or higher and have explicitly been trained in evidenced-based counseling techniques. They may also have areas they specialize in such as trauma, substance use, mood disorders, or eating disorders.

Psychologist: Will have a doctorate (PsyD, PhD) and are trained to work in medical, clinical, or research environments. They can provide diagnostic testing and assessment services, whereas a counselor will need to refer you for those services.

Psychiatrist: Is a medical doctor and will have the ability to prescribe medication. They may not be trained to provide therapy, but you might be referred to a psychiatrist for medication management if necessary.

Social Worker: Typically have a master’s degree and state licensure. They may serve those who are experiencing domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, career issues, and general life crisis or stress. Might be focused more on advocacy and obtaining services as social workers may have a broader role in understanding the different social systems affecting your symptoms.

The type of person you need will depend on what symptoms you are experiencing. Sometimes, more than one is the right answer. Having a good team of helpers on your side can really propel you forward.

2. As with anything… Shop online!

Psychology Today is a wonderful resource. Many of your initial questions will be answered in the counselor’s directory profile. Their summary should give you a good sense of who they are and what type of experience you might have sitting across from them. Professional, clear photo? Are they focused on their accomplishments & selling themselves or kindly speaking to you about their work? What is their area of expertise, and does it match what you’re struggling with? Are they licensed or do they have an online coaching certificate? Would there be a difference between a male or female for you? What kind of approach do they take with clients?

3. Insurance vs. Private Pay

A recent study by Mental Health America found that 56% of the 40 million Americans suffering from mental health issues do not seek treatment primarily due to insufficient insurance and high costs (2017).

Below are a few things to think about when considering this path as more and more therapists are moving toward private-pay services.

Know your benefits:

    • i. Do you have a high deductible that must be met before insurance pays for services?


    • ii. What do they define as “medical necessity?” Many life issues are not covered by insurance (career counseling, stress, marital problems, personal growth) as a diagnosis is required for services.


    • iii. Do I want to be held to a schedule of how many sessions I’m allowed?


    • iv. What does that private-pay therapist charge, and what is the most cost-effective option for me? Sometimes a private-pay session can be the same as your insurance co-pay.


    • v. Do I want this information shared with a third-party? Do I want this potential diagnosis/label on my (dreaded since grade-school) permanent medical record?

4. Make a call… or send an email.

Man, is this easier said than done. When you find one that stands out to you, sit down, take a few deep breaths, and make the call. That first step is difficult but speaking to the individual on the phone will give you an idea of what you can expect when you first meet. If you stare at that phone number for a few days (or even weeks) try sending an email instead! They will be so happy to hear from you.

5. Be present in the first meeting

The research is clear – the therapeutic alliance is fundamental to the success of clients. Just as the therapist is going to be noticing things about you, you need to be paying attention to them and how you feel sitting with them. Do you feel welcomed and safe? Are they actually listening to you? Do they have an agenda or are they tailoring their approach to your needs? What you want in this relationship is solely up to you, and it’s important to know when you have found a counselor that is not a good match.

About the Author

Kelsi Rather, LAC, NCC is a licensed associate counselor currently working in Glendale, Arizona. She is passionate about highlighting the necessity of mental health care and focuses on helping those within the community.

 Resources: Mental Health America

Feature photo credits: Cater Yang

About the author