Want to Start Therapy but Not Sure Where to Turn? Let This Article Be Your Guide

I saw my first psychologist when I was 14, and she was amazing. She asked me to call her by her first name, Kris, and she specialized in treating adolescents. We spent an hour every couple weeks talking about everything: which classes were stressing me out, what my parents did to piss me off, my boyfriend (and eventual ex-boyfriend) who cheated on me with one of my best friends, and what my suicidal thoughts looked and sounded like (totally unrelated to the ex-boyfriend/ex-friend drama). In addition to diagnosing me with depression and working with my primary care physician to prescribe medication for me, we also did talk therapy during our sessions.

I stopped seeing Kris sometime during my junior year of high school, and while I was in a much better place mentally for a few years, my mental illness started to catch up to me in college. Eventually, I was on the search for another therapist. And while I've seen at least a dozen mental health professionals since then, I have never been able to re-create the magic I had with Kris. Sure, I've had psychiatrists prescribe me medication (after some trial and error) that actually worked, and I was able to see some therapists who were covered under my insurance and only cost a $20 copay. But I didn't feel like anyone has gotten me like Kris did; I haven't felt comfortable enough with anyone to truly open up. Even though I should really keep searching and find someone I click with in order to help me manage my bipolar II symptoms, I just haven't found anyone yet.

Turns out, I'm not alone; several people I spoke with also confirmed that they have had a difficult time finding a therapist, whether from just not connecting with someone or not being able to find someone covered under their insurance. But I also spoke to people who have found great therapists they truly enjoy and recommend to others.

To find someone that fits your lifestyle and the issues you're hoping to work out in therapy, take it from these people. From licensed therapists and psychologists to average therapy-going adults, this is their advice.

Decide What Type of Mental Health Professional You Want to See

"Therapist" tends to be an umbrella term that can encompass a variety of mental health professionals. In general, licensed therapists and counselors are master's-level (MS or MA) professionals that provide therapy based on a person's mental health and can administer psychotherapy (talk therapy). Some examples include Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), and Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LCADAC). Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) can also provide therapy.

Psychologists, who have a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) and are licensed by boards in each state, can make mental health diagnoses and provide talk therapy but can't prescribe medication. And while psychiatrists (medical doctors with an MD or DO) can prescribe medication, they may also administer therapy, although this is more rare. In general, psychiatrists will diagnose a mental illness and prescribe medication and may also work with a licensed therapist or psychologist on the best treatment plan for the patient. Before you seek mental health help, it may be useful to know exactly which type of professional you want.

What You Should Ask Your Therapist Ahead of Time

One of the most frustrating aspects of finding a therapist is that you never know if you will connect with someone until you are sitting in the chair, with an (expensive) check in hand. But you don't need to wait until your first paid session to find out if the professional is a good fit.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago, said it's completely reasonable to ask the therapist ahead of time if he or she can answer some questions over the phone before coming in for an official session. You can also ask if the first session can be free. It's also a great time to use this initial call to see if the therapist can provide services for the symptoms you are seeking help for. An ethical therapist will be honest and let you know if your condition is out of the scope of their treatment.

David M. Reiss, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Boston, San Diego, and New York City, told POPSUGAR that honesty is the most important aspect in finding a good therapist. "You want someone who gives you an honest appraisal of themselves and an honest appraisal, as far as you can tell, of how long the therapy is going to take — how quickly we're going to get somewhere."

He added it's also important to find someone you feel comfortable with, which may take a few sessions. "There are no bad questions, and I'm not going to be insulted by any question, but I may decline to answer some of them," Dr. Reiss said. One red flag to look for are therapists who claim to know exactly what you need to get 100 percent better. What type of therapy you should be administered, how many sessions (or years) therapy can take, and other lifestyle recommendations all vary depending on the patient and their mental health, so be wary of anyone who promises to be a cure-all for your problems.

Tips From Real People on Finding a Therapist

"I often seek out black women, femme-identifying therapists, and if they are queer or have queer clientele, that's another plus," Rachael said. Sometimes that means asking friends for recommendations, or calling the office and asking these vetting questions ahead of time.

"I always find it helpful to have a therapist who identifies with my background like gender or race, or who is in the very least cognizant and understanding of the extent that different upbringings can influence people's values and decisions," Sabrina said. "There was this big cultural disconnect I felt with this one therapist that made it really hard for me to open up about my family without feeling judged or misunderstood. Despite any level of expertise, in the end, I see it as two humans talking to one another, so it's helped to have someone understand firsthand my formative experiences. It also made me feel significantly more comfortable about opening up."

Elizabeth* said the tenacity of one therapist really drew her in. "I had a great therapist for years who really helped me move past things no other therapists had been able to," she said. "What worked best was her persistence. After showing up for an appointment only to have it canceled by her, an error on her part, I angrily stormed out of her office, intending never to go back. She called and apologized, explaining that she understood and she asked me to please consider coming back. She clearly understood what a trigger it was for me to be let down. I realized then that she understood the work I needed to do, and I proceeded to go back for many years and made tremendous progress. For anyone looking [for a therapist], I would seek someone that really listens and seems able to assess your situation right off the bat — it's key to feeling like you are with the right person."

The biggest struggle for Jacob* was finding someone in his network that took his insurance. "It took a lot of trial and error looking online in my city, making phone calls to see if people took my insurance, and seeing if they'd work with my schedule. I ended up finding a woman I loved and looked forward to seeing her every week but sadly had to stop sessions with her after I started a new job and had different health insurance."

Make Sure You Do Your Homework

It's important to verify that the mental health professional you are seeking is licensed to practice in the state where he or she works. "Somebody with a license is obliged to follow an ethics code and to keep your private information confidential and can be disciplined if they don't," Dr. Daramus explained. Be wary of people who call themselves "coaches," since that's not a regulated term, and those people may not have formal training or a license.

If you're concerned about cost, you should also ask if they take your insurance; in addition to verifying with the mental health professional, you should also double-check with your insurance company to see if he or she is covered. If the therapist is in private practice and the sessions are out of pocket, you can call and ask how much each session will cost ahead of time. Sometimes, professionals will offer services on a sliding scale, where they will determine a price for you depending on your income.

If you need additional help finding mental health resources, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264). You can also text "NAMI" to 741741 or email info@nami.org.

*Names have been changed.