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Brendan O'Donnel

In the time I have been a mental health therapist I have frequently been asked by friends and acquaintances, “can you recommend someone?”

I appreciate this question because it means that people are exploring ways to support and care for themselves. I also struggle with it, because I cannot know exactly who would be a good fit for the person asking. I offer here the conversation I have with these questioning folks with the intent of sharing some tools that anyone can use to find a therapist.

I think it is important to share that my professional ethic as a social worker is to align with people and collaborate on the desired change, not do or decide for them. Also, I will use the title “therapist” and “counselor” interchangeably in this article; this is imprecise as they are distinct professions with different training and approaches. However, both are capable of offering licensed talk therapy.

Backing up just a little: it may be difficult to acknowledge that we want to speak to a therapist. Often we have the idea that we need to feel broken in order to seek therapy. I would like to stress that while this is one approach, I would invite anyone to seek support before they have a “breakdown.” One metaphor I like — it is easier and cheaper to change the oil than to rebuild the engine. I encourage everyone to normalize talk therapy as self-care and find that some enjoy discussing our therapy experience with others. However, it is also completely appropriate to keep it more private.

I encourage folks to have realistic expectations. It is both true and annoying that every counselor will not be a good fit for every client. It is normal to have to “shop” for a therapist. The internet can help with this. Visit www.inclusivetherapists.com, www.goodtherapy.org, and www.psychologytoday.com to find searchable lists of mental health practitioners. Each search can be narrowed by region, gender, insurance accepted, payment method, and many other criteria.

The search results will include a name, contact info, and a short biography. Read the bio. This is a great way to get a gut check sense about who this person is and how they approach their work. I suggest folks listen to their body to find out if any of the counselors may be a good fit. This can feel like being drawn to them, feeling like they are trustworthy, or feeling curiosity. Create a short list of several therapists, write each a short email or call and leave a voicemail to check their availability and ask questions about their practice and the presenting problem.

Many local therapists will have a waitlist. Unfortunately, there are not enough mental health practitioners for the current need. I recommend that folks schedule with their top local picks and also consider telehealth counseling because it opens access to therapists anywhere in the state. Telehealth therapy is currently reimbursed by insurance payers but this is relatively new and not guaranteed to be permanent. I also advocate that folks let their insurance company know that telehealth therapy needs to remain a covered benefit.

Ultimately, I remind folks that they are hiring this counselor to be a collaborator as they address life’s challenges. Therapists bring training, skills, and experience; the client brings their life expertise and is the one who has to implement the change.

The initial session should be a combination interview for both client and the counselor to determine if they will work well together. I encourage folks to prepare and ask the therapist questions as the responses will be useful information when judging the encounter.

A good visit can include a beginning sense of trust, the client starting to be able to share personal information, and a desire to continue working together. If these are present, schedule a few more sessions; if not, call another person on the list.

I hope this is useful and remember a good fit is out there.

Brendan O’Donnel is a mental health therapist at Mental Wellness Counseling.

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