Maintaining mental health is always essential, but there’s no time like the start of a new year to make it a priority. And for some, that means seeing a therapist to help guide you through your personal wellbeing journey. But it can take a bit to find someone who fits with your needs. According to licensed clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., the more questions you ask in those initial phases, the better.
Before diving into those questions, Carmichael emphasises the importance of speaking to someone—anyone—if you’re struggling with your mental health if you can. You might not immediately click with the first person you speak to, and that’s OK. In the beginning, “just seeing somebody once a week who was going to reliably be there was actually extremely helpful,” she recounts her own experience with therapy.
Once you have laid the groundwork and become comfortable with self-help tools, that’s when you might consider a shopping phase, as it’s often more difficult to find a therapist that can teach you new tools to further stimulate personal growth.
It’s a little like exercise: “If you are super out of shape, any personal trainer is going to be helpful,” she explains. “But if you’re in really good shape, any trainer may not be able to actually enrich what you’re already doing.” That’s where these questions become handy:
1. How many people have you seen who are like me?
After you share some personal information during your initial session, Carmichael says it’s helpful to ask whether the therapist has had any clients with similar stories. Of course, everyone has a unique background and set of circumstances, but generally, as them: How many people have you seen who are (sort of) similar to what I am presenting with? And without going into too much detail, what were their results?
A therapist might reply, “Well, I don’t know you very well yet, and every person’s different,” says Carmichael, but I personally feel they should have some idea of who you are, what you’re dealing with, and have worked with people in similar situations.
2. What books are on your bookshelf?
The therapist will only have a limited amount of information after your first visit, but she suggests still asking what books you could read in between sessions to help you. “The types of books they suggest are going to give you a good indicator of their thinking around you,” she notes, which is helpful information during that shopping phase.
3. Do you give homework?
One of the big complaints from people who come to Carmichael’s office (because their previous therapist wasn’t a good fit), is they would hardly remember what the therapist had said the week before. What she does, is start each session with what happened the previous week – written on a piece of paper, so they know what happened last week, and she can say: “Did you try that breathing exercise before that meeting? How did it go?” or “How did that limit-setting conversation with your spouse turn out?”
It’s important to know your therapist is tracking your progress and keeping up she says. That said, she also recommends asking: “Do you give homework? Is it my responsibility to remember the homework and talk about it during the next session? Or is that something you do?”
If the therapist kind of bristles and says well that’s your job and that you need to take ownership and responsibility, while Carmichael says that’s true, she also says a good therapist will also track those responsibilities and give you helpful nudges to keep you accountable.
4. What do your certifications mean?
Unless you’re super well versed in the health space, chances are all those letters and acronyms behind therapists’ names can look a little confusing. But you should never feel prohibited from asking about those certifications. For instance, you might ask: “What do those letters mean? Was that a certification program? How many weeks, months, or years was that? ” or “I just don’t know your space, and I’d really like to understand more about your training, she continues. If the person seems goes on the defensive, that’s not good. If they seem welcoming and they really want to have that conversation, that’s a good sign.”
There are a lot of things you can do to manage your mental health, but if seeing a therapist is on your agenda, these questions can help you get a good fit. Of course, shopping for a therapist takes time and resources (both financially and emotionally). At the end of the day, be gentle with yourself and know that if you’re making mental health a priority, you’re already on the right path.