How to find a therapist and get therapy?

Written by: B. Duygu Özpolat

(Update: here is a google doc version of this document that is the most up to date)

Looking for a new year resolution? How about getting therapy? You don't have to wait to have severe mental health issues, get help already, we all need it, especially in academia! Here is a little guide I wrote on "How to find a therapist and get therapy".

Also, this is still work in progress, and you can find the current version of this document here, and add your comments to that file if you like.

HOW TO FIND A THERAPIST AND GET THERAPY?

Disclaimer: I am not a therapist, all of this is from a client perspective.

I wanted to share my experience with therapy and write down a couple of things that may help taking steps towards therapy. Because I know the thought of getting therapy can be intimidating, where do you even start, right? Over the years I have worked with therapists and life/career coaches to get help. And with this document, I wish to demystify the process a little bit for those who are considering getting professional help, as well as invite you to consider getting help if you weren’t already considering.

Why is therapy useful and important?

I think a lot of people wait too long to go see a therapist. You do not need to have a severe mental health issue to go to a therapist. It is sad to me how often social stigma stops people from seeking help, which can improve their lives tremendously. For me, therapy not only saved my life but the shift in my understanding of myself, others, life, relationships was so big that I felt/feel like a completely new person thanks to therapy.

A therapist is so valuable because they do not have an agenda about you. Your kids, friends, family love you and they cannot separate their feelings and look at your situation from a neutral perspective. Often family and friends are hesitant to challenge each other fearing they may hurt feelings. Example: Your sister may think your ex-husband has a fair point on the conflict between you two, but she will be hesitant to tell you that, because you were hurt by your ex, and your sister doesn't want to appear they are taking his side (even though she may agree with him and not you). When people constantly agree with you, this hinders your progress and clear seeing of the situation. Therapists know how to challenge you without hurting you.

Family and friends also often are in a hurry for you to be just happy; this is their agenda, it is not malicious, they just want to go back to having fun together. But this may end up causing a feeling of rush and overwhelm without properly processing a situation or enough soul-searching, and may cause you to feel isolated, misunderstood, lonely etc... You need to process things at your own pace, and therapists know this. They give you a non-judgemental safe space to speak your mind. And they teach you tools to deal with tough situations.

And the good news is, you do not need to be going through big life changing events (divorce, losing a loved one, physical trauma etc) to get help. You can get help for smaller things (deciding your next career move, dealing with failure, dealing with difficult coworkers, feeling burned out etc…) that will lead to big improvements in your life.

How to find and get therapy?

I know it may be scary to think about going to a complete stranger and start talking to them about your life, emotions, and thoughts. So, I thought I can try to make it a little easier for you by breaking it down into steps.

1) How do you find a therapist:

If you are in an academic environment (university etc), your institution may have free counseling services. Definitely make sure to check if this opportunity exists first.

I found my current therapist via Psychology Today (because my current workplace doesn’t have an assistance program/center). Luckily my insurance covers most of the costs. You can search using your zip code to see the therapists in your area:  

For example this is a search for Cambridge, MA: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/02138

When I was looking for a therapist in my area, I read through the descriptions and listed a couple of people who resonated with me. Personally, I like people who mention mindfulness practices and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) but also sound more scientific than new-agey or religious - such as, I don't prefer a therapist who will say things like "I will use holistic healing practices to channel your positive energy" OR  "My counseling approach stems from my biblical world-view and my faith." There is nothing wrong with these, somebody else may prefer these approaches. Bottom line is, you want to come up with a list of people that appear to resonate with YOU.

I also looked for somebody who has a PhD just because I knew they could relate to my academic experience. I don't think a PhD is necessary to be a good counselor. These are just examples for how I was able to narrow down my list. 

I also searched their names online to see if they have a website that may have more information.

2) Get in touch: 

Then I started getting in touch with the therapists I identified for a phone consultation, which is free and is often 20-30 minutes. You can simply send them an email or call their office and say you are interested in starting to get therapy and would like to setup an appointment for a consultation phone call. 

You should stay away from anybody who is not willing to do this. Because it is very important to find the right fit, and if somebody is stingy with their time like that, you don't want to work with them anyway. (It never happened to me by the way. All people I contacted were happy to do a free consultation session and were quite generous with their time). 

3) What to say and ask during the consultation: 

You can explain briefly what you are struggling with, state you are new to therapy, and see what they have to say. They may ask you a couple of things too. This is just so you both get a feel for each other and see if there is good potential for your collaboration. 

This phone call is also a good time to figure out logistics such as:

- how much do they charge per session

- which insurance they accept, if they accept insurance at all

- what is the price if you do not have insurance (sometimes they will be willing to charge a cheaper price if you don't have insurance) 

- what is their schedule like (e.g. they only see patients late in the afternoon, but may be you prefer mornings etc). 

Then thank them and say that you will be in touch. You do not have to make a commitment yet. Until you find somebody that feels right, call all the therapists you have on your list. Then get back in touch with the person that you felt like is the best fit and schedule an appointment. 

4) Where to start when you meet your therapist for the first time? 

Some therapists ask questions to warm you up, some may ask directly something like "so tell me what is going on/what would you like to talk about". It is totally fine to dive right into it. Better not spend too much time with small talk, your session typically is only 1 hour. 

I usually get to my therapist’s 15-20 mins early, sit in my car and take notes on my phone for what I would like to talk to her about. And once I'm at her office, after saying hi, and "weather has been beautiful today", I go “Today I wanted to talk about this challenging situation I have with a colleague..." 

Your therapist will listen to you carefully, and then often rephrase/summarize what they "heard" you said, so you are on the same page, and they will ask you questions. It is really not that scary at all. Often, you'll be surprised at the questions they ask, which may initially sound unrelated, but they will help you to see the deeper, underlying issues, and/or see the situation from a new perspective. 

I also try to take 10-15 minutes after the session, in my car, or at a cafe nearby, to write down my thoughts while they are fresh. I review these in between, until my next session, or right before the next session. 

5) If you end up not liking your therapist, you don't have to go back. You are not obligated to do anything. This is normal, it happens, so just setup an appointment with somebody else you thought could be a good fit. It can be tiring to repeat yourself, but once you find the right person, it will be worth it. That said, I would probably try working with somebody for a couple of sessions before I give up, as it can take time to build trust and open up.  

I hope this helps!

B. Duygu Özpolat