Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Selecting a Therapist

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

Over the course of two decades of clinical practice, my clients, friends and acquaintances have often asked me: How do I pick the right therapist for me? Having myself gone to three "bad" therapists earlier in my life before finding the right one for me, I have plenty to say on this subject.

First of all, don't even think about going to an unlicensed therapist for a serious emotional or interpersonal problem. When I'm called by a new patient and they ask me if I mind telling them my credentials, I always tell them that not only do I not mind, but I'm glad they asked. You have every right to ask any health care provider about their education, training, and licensure, and any provider who is not forthcoming with this information should be eliminated from the running at the outset.

There are, to my knowledge, four types of licensed practitioners available to people seeking psychotherapy. Clinical Social Workers, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and in some states such as California, Licensed Marital and Family Therapists. The usefulness of a practitioner who is licensed, and there are many who are not, is two-fold:
  1. Licensure is a guarantee that the practitioner has met minimal educational and experiential criteria necessary for the independent practice of psychotherapy. While some people feel that therapists are merely "nice" people who are paid to listen, there is in fact a science and art to the practice of psychotherapy. You don't want someone who is not firmly grounded in the tools and techniques that are covered in certified legitimate training programs.

  2. Becoming licensed is hard work for providers, and we are very cognizant of the ethical and legal standards to which we must adhere to renew our licenses. In other words, a licensed practitioner will refrain, generally, from inappropriate treatment and behavior because of the threat of losing our licenses if we don't adhere to these standards.

Having said all of the above, let me add that there are other categories of helping professionals which are often appropriate for given problems. For example, I've had experiences working with patients when an ethical or moral issue has come to the surface for which the patient needs guidance. It is often helpful, in my experience, for clients to consult with a Pastoral Counselor who is ordained in their particular faith. Many issues in life are not psychological in nature, and in areas of ethics, morals, and values, it is often most helpful to consult with a Pastor of your own faith.

There are other instances in which seeing a licensed therapist may not be the most appropriate for a given individual. For example, anyone in the active stage of an addiction would be better served going to a Twelve-Step Program than seeing a therapist, especially in the early part of their recovery. If a person can do both therapy and Twelve step that's ideal for their recovery, but the point I'm making here is that therapy is not always the treatment of choice.

Read Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Selecting a Therapist Part II: Likeability, Intelligence, and Lifestyle

Read Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Selecting a Therapist Part III: The Top Ten Reasons to Run From a Therapist


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