How to choose the right therapist

Choosing the right therapist can feel complicated and overwhelming. It can be difficult to know what type of therapy you may need and what to look for when choosing a therapist. In this guide I’m going to provide some advice on finding the right therapist for you.

Check their registration

It is crucially important that therapists are registered with a professional body. This ensures that they will be behaving professionally and ethically, and providing treatment that is safe and effective.

In the UK, Psychologists are regulated by the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). Counsellors and psychotherapists are regulated by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Any genuine therapist will have this information on their website or will be happy to share this with you. It is a big red flag if a potential therapist is vague about their qualifications and registration, or minimise the importance of this.

Be aware of the differences between counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists

Counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists are all different types of therapists with different training routes.

Counsellors are trained in listening and providing you with a space to make sense of your difficulties and to move forward. Counselling tends to be less structured than other types of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). It is usually helpful when you want a space to make sense of what is happening for you and to be heard.

Psychotherapists are usually trained one or more types of talking therapies. They tend to specialise in working with particular problems using a specific therapy approach. This might include CBT, EMDR or longer-term therapies such as psychodynamic approaches. A psychotherapist is usually a good option if you have a specific problem that you want to work on and already have an idea of what kind of therapy you want to access.

Psychologists have a scientific background before training as therapists. As part of our training we work in a number of different settings and so we become skilled in working with different types of problems in different ways. This means that when you see a psychologist they will likely have a lot of experience and knowledge to draw on. The downside of this is that it tends to be more expensive to see a psychologist then to see a counsellor or psychotherapist.

Look for therapists with the right specialisms and experience

Most psychologists and therapists will have a website or Psychology Today profile where you can find out more about them. It is usually sensible to look for therapists who have specific expertise in the difficulty you are experiencing.

For common difficulties that you have been experiencing for a short period of time (less than a year), most therapists will be able to help with these. This includes periods of stress, mild to moderate general anxiety, mild difficulties with mood and motivation, bereavement and adjustment.

Choosing a therapist with the right expertise is important if:

  • You have a specific difficulty such as trauma, relationship difficulties, addictions, OCD, personality difficulties or an eating disorder (this is not an exhaustive list but gives you an idea of the difference between general and specific difficulties)
  • You have had therapy in the past and it has not been helpful
  • Your difficulties have been present for a long time and/or are impacting on your life significantly.
  • Your difficulties are complex and feel overwhelming. In this case choosing an experienced therapist with expertise in at least one aspect of your problems is important.

Think about what you want from therapy and whether the therapist is a good fit

Think about your goals for therapy before you start looking for a therapist. Do you need to space to talk and to feel heard, or are you keen to get advice and make changes? Most people will want a mixture of both, but it is important for you to be clear about what you’re looking for.  

As a psychologist, many clients who come to me have had some therapy in the past. For most people this has been helpful to an extent, but they have a sense that they need something different or more specialist expertise. If this is you, think about what was missing and what you would like to be different this time.

Interestingly many people who have had counselling will often ask for something more ‘active’ and will be wanting to make changes. On the other hand, sometimes people have had bad experiences with CBT, usually when this has been offered by an inexperienced therapist, in a small number of sessions or in a rigid manner. In these circumstances clients often come looking for a deeper understanding of their difficulties. These examples might help you to think about what you want from your therapy.   

It is important to persevere if you have had therapy in the past and it wasn’t quite what you were looking for. There are so many types of therapy and as human beings we are all so different. This means it can take a little effort to find a therapist that is right for you. However when you do it will be totally worth it.

Practicalities are important so also think about whether you would like online sessions or face to face. Most clients opt for online sessions nowadays because they are much easier to access. This generally outweighs the drawbacks of it not feeling ‘the same’ as face to face. Some therapists offer the option of a mix of online and face to face, which can be a good compromise.

Be aware that it can sometimes be challenging to find a therapist in a certain location, with specific expertise, and who has availability. Sometimes you may need to compromise on one of these three to find the right therapist. Often clients choose to have online sessions or to join a specific therapist’s waiting list because it gives them access to specialist expertise.  

Arrange a brief phone consultation

When you have thought about and checked the above points, it is time to start making contact with a few therapists who seem a good match. Most therapists offer a short consultation (10 to 15 minutes) to allow you to speak briefly to them before deciding whether to book in for an assessment. This is a good way to gauge whether you might ‘click’ with them and to ask any questions you may have.

Its important to know that the therapist will not be able to give you a definite answer as to whether a particular therapy will be right for you during this short phone call. This always requires a full and thorough assessment. However they will be able to provide their initial thoughts and to talk to you about their approach and the practicalities of booking in.

It is important to ‘trust your gut’ at this stage and to think about whether you felt safe and relatively comfortable talking to this person. Experienced therapists will avoid being pushy and will give you space to think.

It is important that you feel comfortable with the therapist that you choose, so take your time deciding.

I hope you have found this guide helpful. Please also check out my previous post What can I expect when seeing a psychologist?