How to choose the right mental health practitioner

Feb 3, 2011 at 11:10 a.m. ET

Every mental health practitioner is different, which is why finding the one who’s right for you can feel pretty overwhelming. You may be tempted to pick a practitioner at random, because doing so would be a quick and convenient way to make a selection, but don’t. Making such a mistake can rush you into an investment you’ll regret.

Mental Health Practitioner

Instead, take the following steps and you'll be better prepared to choose the practitioner who's right for your needs.

Do your research

There are a number of things you'll need to know about a mental health practitioner, psychologiest or counselor to decide whether or not he or she is the right fit.

Bruce Wright, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says, "Mental health providers should be specifically trained in their field. It is not unreasonable to ask your potential provider to summarize his or her training and education. Providers should also be insured [and] board certified if they are psychiatrists, and have no sanctions by the state licensing board. A review of your provider through the licensing board website will help determine if they have had any infractions in the past that would raise your level of concern about receiving treatment from them."

Ask people you trust for recommendations

From hair stylists to vacation destinations and realtors to restaurants, you probably ask for others' recommendations all the time. Why not do the same thing when shopping for a mental health practitioner?

According to Sally Palaian, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Bingham Farms, Michigan, "The best way to find someone is to ask your friends and family if they know someone. Personal referrals are very important when dealing with mental health issues. If you aren't comfortable letting others know that you are seeking help, ask your clergy or your physician."

Feel out your options before committing to someone

Palaian also recommends interviewing a few of your top options before selecting someone. During these initial meetings, she says it's important to ask yourself a variety of questions, such as:

  • Do you feel comfortable being yourself with this person?
  • Do you think they "get" you and are making efforts to understand you better?
  • Can you trust that this person can help you?
  • Is this office comfortable to you?
  • Has this therapist been in therapy themselves?
  • Seek a practitioner whose background suits your areas of concern.

"Look for someone with at least a few years of experience treating your particular concern. For example, if you're looking for marriage therapy, make sure you find a clinician who has several years of training and experience in couple's therapy," says Susan Orenstein, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and founder of the group psychology practice, Orenstein Solutions, in Cary, North Carolina.

Go with your gut

Your instincts are a valuable tool throughout this decision-making process. Listen to them. "If you are feeling comfortable with someone while on the phone and in the first session, it bodes well for future treatment sessions. If you are not, it doesn't," says Kim Leatherdale, a licensed professional counselor and author of the Creating Rewarding Relationships blog.

"Pay attention to how well and professionally the person answers your questions and listens to your answers to theirs. If you don't feel listened to in the call or in your first session, that often won't change later," she explains.

Don't feel obligated to stick with someone

If you do realize, down the road, that perhaps you and your practitioner aren't an ideal fit, don't be afraid to look for someone else. According to Leatherdale, "People need to understand that if they feel it isn't a good fit, then it is perfectly alright to change professionals. The first choice doesn't have to be the final choice. Don't feel you have to stay with someone; you'll resent them and won't benefit from treatment."