Finding a therapist or psychiatrist can be hard. It sometimes comes down to trial and error to see who you blend with and who has the style you are looking for. Have no fear, though, because it doesn’t have to take several sessions to figure out if someone is a good fit for you and your goals. Thanks to my friend—who just also happens to be a licensed child psychiatrist—I have a list of questions you can ask at your first appointment to see if you should consider continuing the relationship. I also have some from my own 10+ years of therapy experience to share with you so you can learn from my mistakes.
First Piece of Advice: Know the Why and What?
Before we get into the questions, the first piece of advice I’m going to give is to go into the first meeting with notes on why you are going in the first place. What are you experiencing daily and what concerns do you have that have taken you to therapy? If you can have someone like a spouse, close friend, or parent with you the first time to give their view of the situation, that can also help. Make sure it’s someone you trust with information you’d typically share in a therapy setting.
It’s also a good idea to have in mind what goals you want to accomplish in therapy so that you see the end at the beginning. Don’t worry about them being S.M.A.R.T. goals right now, just have an idea of what you want to accomplish before you graduate from therapy.
- Do you want to grow your self-esteem?
- Overcome a mental obstacle?
- Take control of your mental health in ways you can’t do alone?
- Figure out your personal relationships or lack thereof?
If you don’t have a goal and need help figuring out what is happening and how to fix it, that’s fine too. Sometimes not knowing is a goal by itself and is marked under the “I’m trying to find out why I feel this way” category.
Write this information down or put it in your phone in a way that you can easily read it while at your appointment. Sometimes, you can provide this information ahead of time to your therapist, and other times you have to wait until you are at the appointment.
Second Piece of Advice: Set Boundaries
In my first session with one of my therapists, I set a boundary on what I was and wasn’t willing to talk about. I had been through some of the same issues with previous therapists and I was over talking about certain things. The catch was if I brought them up, then the gloves were off until I was uncomfortable or wanted to change the subject for the time being.
If the topic of conversation doesn’t seem to be helping with your goals, feel free to change the topic to something you feel would or ask “How is this conversation moving me toward my end goal?” Remember: This is your time. Make sure you get what you need out of it.
Questions To Ask Your Therapist
During your appointment, make sure to ask these questions to figure out if the therapist has the style and experience that you are looking for. Not all therapists are a fit for all people or situations, and that’s ok.
- What methods do they specialize in (CBT, DBT, EFT, etc) and what do they generally start with?
- What are their strengths as a therapist?
- Do they give homework? (Some patients like this, some don’t.)
- How available are they if you have a question or concern that comes up between appointments?
- Do they think medication would be beneficial, and, if so, do they have an MD they can refer you to? (More on this in a minute.)
A note about homework. Personally, I find it beneficial to have something to work on between appointments, but that’s because it’s part of my goals. For example, one week, my homework was to plan my day for five out of seven days the following week. Another goal was to use the DBT skill “wise mind” when my anxiety came up. (Side note: When I named the emotional mind “Anakin” the logical mind “Spock” and the wise mind “Master Yoda” and my therapist laughed, I knew I had the right person helping me.)
I also love worksheets to go along with my therapy or books to read more about how to help me or give me insight.
While the MD is a personal preference, let me tell you why it’s mine. First, an MD has more training. Second, I’ve been seen by non-MD professionals and an MD, and I had a much better experience with the MD. Also, when it comes to minors, that extra training comes in handy.
At the end of the appointment, ask them what they are thinking of in terms of diagnosis(es). (Sometimes there is more than one.) And last but not least, ask about their cancelation policy. It’s not uncommon for doctors or therapists, in general, to charge for canceling so many hours before an appointment, and you don’t want that extra anxiety if you have a tendency to need to swap out appointments at the last minute.
What If You Want to Move On?
Finding the right therapist can be difficult, even if you ask the right questions and do everything right. Sometimes, a therapist can be a poor fit for you, and that is okay. Remember that therapists are professionals and their job is to help you. If they are not providing the support that you need, it’s okay to look for someone else.
Leaving a therapist can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that you don’t owe them an explanation. You can either call and let them know that you won’t be coming back or simply stop scheduling appointments.
In The End, It’s Your Time
In the end, remember, this is your time for self-care. (Yes, therapy is self-care/maintenance.) You are the one taking off work, school, or time from your family to seek out professional help. It makes sense that you are the person it should benefit.
No matter how you approach finding a therapist, I congratulate you on taking the step towards healthier mental health. It’s not easy to go to therapy for some people, and I hope that having questions ready so you don’t waste sessions and money trying to find the right fit helps you on this journey.