The Psychology Query Issue 6: How to Find a Psychologist and What to Look For
I have been approached recently by several different individuals for advice on how to go about locating a qualified psychologist for themselves or a family member. Each was reluctant to have others learn that they were seeking this type of care due to fear of being viewed as “crazy” or “mentally ill” and stigmatized, or being judged as having some kind of permanent flaw in their personality or general makeup. One was also worried that if it were known he had a “mental problem," it would be assumed that his children could have inherited it, which would make others treat them as if they had the same problem he did. Another was concerned that if her daughter was identified as having a problem with their mood, parents, teachers, and other children might ostracize them—and the label might be something that will follow them their entire life.
As much as I want to be able to say these fears are unfounded, I cannot. We have come a long way from the days when all those who exhibited odd or unusual behavior were kept in asylums as a means of keeping them away from the rest of society. Yet that is not to say that those in need of psychological help in order to live the best life possible aren’t often viewed negatively. I would like to make a few points about this before answering my reader's question.
It is not unusual for people to look at other’s behavior, especially that related to problems associated with habits, and conclude that they deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions because they have chosen to act that way. Many also believe that because others know that what they are doing or the way they are feeling is negatively impacting their life that they should be able to decide to change this. The natural tendency to equate what we do, believe, feel or the ways in which we react to different situations to be universal can also lead us to think that there is no reason for others not to have the same reactions or find the same things problematic or handle situations in the same way.
There are many reasons we judge others and tend to attribute their behavior and problems to something about them while we attribute our own difficulties to external and uncontrollable forces. This discussion is beyond the scope of this article. I just want to present a few facts that are true of all of us, in the hopes that it will help elicit enough insight to make at least a small bit of difference in how mental difficulties are viewed.
First, there is a common misperception that mental health problems are qualitatively different from the problems we all experience at some point. While perhaps a few disorders such as schizophrenia may involve symptoms most of us do not experience (although many common problems such as sleep deprivation, migraines, fever and reactions to medications can lead to hallucinations) for the most part, mental disorders are exaggerations symptoms we are all familiar with. I imagine everyone knows what it is like to feel anxious or depressed even if only fleetingly, and has things that cause them fear and which they would just as soon avoid. Most of us know what it is to grieve for someone. We all know others who react to stress by becoming physically ill or whose personality characteristics are less than desirable and make interacting with them difficult at best.
We all have ways in which we cope, behave and think and aspects of our personality that differ from mental disorders only by degree not by type. We all have things that cause us distress which may or may not be shared by others. So the judgment that others who are experiencing these types of symptoms at a severe enough level that they need help managing them as being completely different and separate from us is not accurate.
The truth is that we are all equally likely to develop some type of problem that falls under the umbrella of mental health disorders at some time in our lives. The type and degree of the problem we may develop are determined by predispositions we are born with and by how our environment influences us throughout our lifetime. For example, how we are taught to cope with stress, what types of behaviors were modeled for us as we grew up, what types of behaviors we are taught are okay or not okay, or what messages were communicated to us about who we are can strongly influence the likelihood that we whether or not we develop the problems to which we are predisposed.
It is also important to keep in mind that everyone is an individual and handles situations differently. What may not bother one person may be extremely distressing for another and a situation one person has no difficulty coping with may be something another individual may not know how to handle. This does not mean that one person is stronger or weaker than another, just that we all come to situations with different internal and external resources and learning histories. The real strength lies in identifying when something is getting in the way of your ability to live life to its fullest and seeking out someone who is trained to help you learn ways to change that.
Everyone goes through times when they have difficulty handling some aspect of their life, when their mood seems to be affecting them for the worse, when a habit seems to be getting out of hand or when other behaviors appear to be creating problems they find difficult to control. The ability to just tolerate the problem without really addressing it, finding a way to prevent its return or limiting the symptoms or the way the symptoms impact us does not mean we are strong nor does it make us courageous. The willingness to suffer silently, deny a problem exists or admit we would like to feel better is not an indication of strength of character. The ability to embrace the hope of a better future not hindered by a problem that there are options for solving or minimizing is true courage and strength of character. Supporting others efforts to find a way to turn this hope into reality even in the face of others negative judgments is also true courage and strength of character.
How do I go about finding a psychologist and are there certain things I need to check to make sure they can help me?
This is a question I get asked a lot when meeting new people and disclosing my background. There are some simple ways to identify competent psychologists in your area. A good start is to call your local or state psychological association. You can also consult a local university or college department of psychology as they may have faculty who are also private practitioners. Minimally, university faculty who train graduate level clinical or counseling psychologists would know of practitioners in the community as these individuals often help train students in therapy skills.
If you are comfortable doing so, asking family and friends for recommendations can often provide the most useful information. You can also contact your area community mental health center, inquire at your church, synagogue or other religious institution or, use APA's Psychologist Locator service.
What to Consider When Making the Choice
Working with a psychologist is not a matter of them telling you what to do to fix your problem and you doing it. Psychologists and clients work together to determine what is underlying the problem and the best way to address it. Therefore, it is important to find the right match. Most practitioners agree that after establishing credentials and competence, one of the important factors in determining whether or not to work with a particular psychologist is your level of comfort with them.
Rapport is probably the most important factor, which is something generally more sensed than logical. Feeling that the psychologist not only listens to you but hears what you have to say, takes your preferences into consideration when making recommendations and adjusts their ideas as to what the problem is based on your feedback, all contribute to rapport. You should choose a psychologist with whom you feel comfortable and who you feel the beginnings of a connection to the first session.
This is not to say that you should always find the process of therapy is something that is comfortable. Learning new ways of thinking about things, coping with difficulties, interpreting feelings and interacting with others is not always easy or comfortable.
You should find someone who helps you challenge aspects of yourself and your life which you have come to view as normal and which may have served a purpose at some point but which aren’t working for you any longer. We are most comfortable with what we are used to not challenging the status quo. At the same time, the person you choose to work with should be able to discern when you begin to feel overwhelmed and back off enough for you to be able to tolerate your emotions related to the recommended strategy.
Questions to Ask a Psychologist You Are Considering Working With
I have always found it odd that many people will interview plumbers, electricians, contractors and even dog walkers but don’t feel they have the same right to interview a psychologist before deciding that individual is the best one to whom to disclose the most personal aspects of their life and identity and to trust their advice and suggestions. Psychologists are aware that they are not the ideal person to work with every person or to address every type of problem. I have listed some basic questions to ask a psychologist or mental health provider to determine if they are a good fit.
Are you licensed?
How many years have you been practicing psychology?
What experience do you have helping people with [anxiety, depression etc.]?
What areas do you specialize in (e.g. adolescents, families)?
What is your orientation/framework (e.g. cognitive behavioral etc.)? What types of techniques do you use, and have is there evidence that are effective treating the problems I am experiencing?
How much do you charge per hour? Do you have a sliding-scale fee policy (which bases the fee on your income)?
Do you accept insurance and if so what kind? Will you accept direct billing to or payment from my insurance company? (Some providers services are covered by insurance but you are expected to pay up front and then file for reimbursement yourself.