The process of finding a therapist can be confusing and frustrating if you have no guidelines to organize your search. In a big city like New York, there are so many talented therapists, but the path to finding the “perfect” one is often unclear.

So many of my patients have shared their experiences of going weeks and weeks without finding the right therapist. Some people end up calling 20 psychologists who are too expensive, don’t have space in their schedule or don’t take insurance.

I want to make that process easier for you by offering a few tips for making your search less harrowing.

First I will make the more obvious recommendations followed by the less obvious.

Basic Ways to Find a Therapist

  1. Begin with a Google search for the exact type of therapist you think you want. For example, you might search “cognitive-behavioral psychologist in midtown New York”, “therapist Financial District NYC” or “Marriage Therapist in San Francisco”. See who shows up in the results.
  2. Another great option is to look on a listing site for therapists, which allows you to search by insurance accepted, fees, location, specialty and many other criteria. Psychologytoday.com is the largest listing site for psychologists, social workers, marriage counselors, mental health counselors and psychiatrists. Goodtherapy.org is also great. What makes the listing sites easy is that you can read a bit about each therapist’s philosophy within his or her profile, but there’s something you should know about how they choose to describe themselves. See below.
  3. Go on your health insurance plan’s website, pull up a list of therapists and start calling. This is probably the most frustrating way to find a therapist, but if you’re persistent, you can probably find one therapist who has availability for every 15-20 therapists you contact.
  4. Ask a friend or colleague for a recommendation. Referrals from people you trust often turn out better than a blind search. Just make sure that their specific needs match yours. For example, if your coworker saw a therapist for help with depression and you need help with social anxiety, you might want to interview that therapist by phone to get more information.

The Secret to Finding an Awesome Therapist

  1. Pay attention to the face of the therapist. What is your first reaction? Does their face make you feel reassured, warm, or relaxed? Your gut reaction is so important in choosing a therapist. Don’t underestimate your reaction. Your therapist’s face will come in handy, as it will be the source of so much non-verbal communication in your sessions. You need to trust that face in order to build the therapeutic bond, the largest predictor of how well you will do in therapy.
  2. Most of the writing on therapists’ profiles is generic. So many psychologists identify themselves as being influenced by cognitive-behavioral therapy. Also, the majority of therapists will list their primary focus as depression, anxiety and relationships, which essentially tells you nothing about them. If a therapist you like has a generic profile, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call him or her. I’m aware that many people prefer to avoid the phone as a means of communication, but I believe it’s essential for choosing a therapist when you have a lack of information about him or her.
  3. Interview your therapist on the phone and don’t be afraid to ask about his or her approach to therapy or what types of patients or issues he or she has the best outcomes treating. The goal is to get more information than you found online. Here are a few examples of direct questions to ask a potential therapist: “Are you considered a specialist in eating disorders?” (You want an expert, not a generic therapist.) “How interactive are you?” (If you’re looking for a collaborative process with a therapist who is more directive, then most therapists who identify themselves as solely psychoanalytic will do much more listening than talking.) “How much do you focus on childhood memories in the sessions?” (This is another strong gauge of whether the therapist takes a more here-and-now or CBT approach, as opposed to a traditional and psychoanalytic approach.)
  4. Make sure you convey how motivated you are to make progress, assuming that you ARE motivated. You might not realize it, but the therapist is also interviewing you. That is, if a psychologist is really good, he or she probably has a relatively full schedule, which means he or she might screen potential patients for their level of motivation and investment in the process. I know it sounds yucky, but it’s true. If a therapist feels overwhelmed by a large caseload, heir she would be less likely to agree to take on a client who lacks motivation to change.
  5. Unless you luck out and find the perfect therapist on the first shot, I would recommend auditioning two or three therapists in person and then choosing the best one of the group. This might cost you more, but it can be helpful to try out a few different mental health professionals before making your choice.
  6. Why is #5 necessary? Because the truth is that most people don’t have a great sense of the type of therapist they need. The process of trying different therapists allows you to see how different qualities impact your comfort and success in treatment. For example, if you have a combative relationship with your father, does that make you avoid a male therapist or seek one out to try to overcome your difficulty relating to strong male figures? Is a younger and more hip therapist better for you or would you be better off under the care of more seasoned, gray-haired doctor? Essentially, it’s ok to assume that you don’t know exactly what’s going to work for you in therapy unless you have a history of therapy to draw upon.
  7. If your finances severely limit your options, consider two things. One, you can always ask a potential therapist if he or she would accept a lower rate for a fixed number of sessions, and then plan to renegotiate the rate or stop treatment once those sessions end. Chances are that if you’re making progress and you’re relatively easy to work with, your therapist will be more flexible with the rates than initially advertised. Even psychologists who command high rates are often open to short-term therapy at a lower rate. Two, many therapists are willing to accept a lower rate for patients who can fill in time slots that are hard to fill (late morning or between lunch and dinner hours).

Good luck with your search and feel free to ask questions in the comments section below. I will do my best to answer every entry.