With the pandemic and major events around the world in the past couple years, more and more people have been talking about and paying attention to their mental health, possibly more than any other time in modern history.
In addition to conversations in our everyday lives, companies have been providing mental health days, and we've seen professional athletes withdrawing from competition to protect their mental health.
As part of this change in how people view mental health, many have started seeing or thinking about seeing a therapist—some for the first time.
Numerous studies have shown that the therapeutic relationship between a client and therapist is one of the strongest predictors of success, and it's important for people to find the right personal fit for therapy sessions to be effective.
However, if you've never seen a therapist before, there's a good chance that you might not know what questions to ask a therapist.
To help people who might be thinking about trying therapy or are looking for the right fit, licensed therapists around the country responded to the following question: "What's the one question every client should a therapist ask before getting started?"
Even with such an open question, their responses followed some key themes, including asking about progress, experience, methodology, specialties, and questions to help you see if the therapist would be a good match for you. Read on to find out what therapists think are the most important questions to ask a therapist in your first conversation with them.
Therapists mentioned that it's important to ask about making and tracking progress towards your goals. They suggested asking questions that included:
- How will I know if I am making progress?
- How will I know if I am improving?
- Will you be the one to tell me that we’ve done the work that we can do, and that it’s time to move on?
Erica Alter of Cobb Psychotherapy in New York explained, "Every client is different when it comes to their individual goals, but some want set goals and check-in points to measure their progress, while others want to explore past experiences and understand them better. If you have specific lifestyle or behavioral changes you want to see, make sure your therapist knows that, and that you have collaborated on a consistent check-in plan with measures that you feel good about."
Providing another New York perspective, Dr. Jason Durant said, "When new patients approach a new therapist, it is important that the patient has an understanding of what the clinician will use as metrics for success… Patients often struggle to know months or even years later if the therapy is still helping and if they should take a break or even consider moving on. Setting this expectation early on can be very helpful for the client at a later point when they are wondering where they are in the therapeutic process."
When it comes to experience, therapists suggested asking about the types of clients that a therapist typically works with. Specifically, they suggested asking if they've worked with people similar to you, or if they share life experiences that might be similar to yours. For example, if you're looking for an Asian-American therapist, you might look for someone who understands your cultural background because they grew up with a similar community or family structure.
Here are some of the questions they suggested asking to learn about a therapist's experience as it specifically relates to you:
- Have you worked with someone like me before?
- What kind of clients do you mostly work with in your practice?
- What are your specialties?
David Khalili, a therapist in Oakland, California explained why these types of questions are important. "This will help you understand two things about the therapist; their level of experience and competence to work on the issues that you are facing, and their humility and openness to meeting you where you're at."
Therapists also stressed the importance of seeing someone who has expertise in what you want help with.
"Most therapists work with general life stressors, mild anxiety, and depression, but it's so important to find someone who has expertise in what you're looking for," said Lillian Rishty of NYC Therapy Group.
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a therapist in Connecticut, also spoke to the importance of specialties. "There are so many types of therapists, using varying therapeutic methods and treatment. You want to be certain that your needs have been handled for some years by the therapist you are considering. Most therapists are not generalists."
As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, Lauren Donelson echoed the importance of understanding a therapist's specialties. "Ask your therapist what they specialize in. Graduate training is very broad, and most therapists are not trained to treat every condition."
Many therapists stressed the importance of asking about a therapist's approach to therapy and the different methodologies they use.
By asking for specifics and listening to a therapist's responses, a client can see if a therapist has the experience and confidence in their abilities to help you.
Here are a couple of methodology-related questions that therapists suggested asking:
- What would be your approach to helping me with this problem?
- How do you think you can help me?
Cina Hoey, a holistic psychotherapist explained, "This can be extremely enlightening because you are asking the therapist both about their style of therapy, which you get to decide is or is not right for you, and also about their level of skill and confidence with whatever you are seeking therapy for, which you deserve if you are hiring them to help you!"
"Qualified therapists should have an approach that is easy for them to identify and explain. Also, since the field of therapy is so broad, you want to be sure that particular therapist is a good fit for you based on their experience and specialty area," said Kaitlin Soule, a therapist in Petaluma, California.
Scheduling and timelines
Especially now, therapists are in high demand. Many have waiting lists for weeks, if not months.
Some therapists suggested specifically asking about timelines to see if calendars could line up and timeline expectations were aligned.
- How frequently do you typically schedule appointments with clients?
- How long should the process of improvement take?
Samantha Kingma at Rest + Renew therapy in Arizona explained, "Some therapists see clients weekly or every other week on a consistent day and time, while other therapists schedule clients around whatever openings they have in their calendar which may mean that you have 3-4 weeks between appointments at times. If you have an idea of how frequently you would like to meet with a therapist, asking this question will help you understand if the therapist will be able to meet at this frequency or not."
Apart from scheduling sessions, therapists thought it was important to ask about how long a therapist plans to work with you.
"In terms of a timeframe, most competent therapists should be able to tell you how long it takes for clients to significantly improve under their care—if they can't, that is a big red flag. For most competent therapists working from a research-based model, they should be able to help you significantly better within 8-16 weeks," said Dr. Aaron Weiner in Lake Forest, Illinois
Many therapists mentioned how important it was to ask about a therapist's overall style and how they run their sessions. These can be critical parts of your relationship with your therapist.
- What's your style in your work?
- What will therapy sessions be like?
Mollie Eliasof, a therapist in New York City expanded on why it's important to ask about a therapist's style. "This is different than asking what approach someone uses, because it’ll give you a sense of their personality and their intention in the work. Remember, one of the main things that makes a therapeutic relationship work is a good match!"
Not only does a therapist have a style, they likely have their own way of structuring sessions.
Dr. Holly Schiff explained, "While there isn’t always a clear cut answer for every session, I think it is important for clients to know how the therapist typically runs a therapy session. Some therapies are highly structured, with homework assignments and skill training. Other therapists may have a format that is more supportive, flexible and casual."
Creating psychological safety has become an important part of workplaces, building personal relationships, and someone's ability to feel like they can be their authentic self. "A lot of the work in therapy is building a connection with your therapist, so it is very important for the patient to feel they are in a safe space to share and express their thoughts and feelings," explained Lauren Schapiro, a therapist with Liz Morrison Therapy.
Where to find a therapist
Many people find therapists through a referral from a friend, family member, church, or community organization. Now that mental health has become more of an everyday topic of conversation, you might be surprised to find out how many people you know have seen a therapist.
If you're looking to start therapy for the first time and don't want to spend hours reading reviews on Google, there are large online databases like Psychology Today and Therapy Den, where you can look for a therapist in your area.
If your health insurance includes therapy, you can look on your insurance provider's website to a therapist who takes your insurance. However, many therapists who take insurance have long waiting lists, and therapists frequently choose to be private-pay only to avoid many of the challenges that come with working with insurance companies.
When you're ready to find a therapist near you, remember to use these questions suggested by therapists around the country to help you find the right match for you and your mental health.