Not long ago, mental health wasn't a public topic of discussion. Back then, many mental health struggles were kept private for fear of the stigma attached to "needing help." Fast forward to today, when the importance of mental health has a greater focus in both our health care system and in the way we talk about healthy living, and it appears that people need the help now more than ever. In 2018, 19 percent of adults experienced a mental illness. Since the pandemic of 2020, that number has increased significantly. If you're struggling, you are not alone.
While it may have been a clandestine affair in the past, seeking help from a therapist is now seen as a healthy and proactive way for many people to manage their mental health—but it's not always easy to know if or when it's time to reach out. Have you just hit one of those temporary bumps in the road, or is it something more significant? According to Julie Frischkorn, the director of behavioral health and mindfulness at PeopleOne Health, there are many reasons to go see a therapist, including:
- Perspective from an unbiased person outside of our friend group or family setting
- Strategies from someone who has training in the areas in which we are looking to gain traction
- Hope from a professional who has experienced and cultivated change in others
- Confidentiality to speak freely without judgement
- Guidance when we dare to admit that we can't do it on our own
- A reboot when we have already used all the tools in our toolkit and nothing's working
Once you've identified the need, finding help isn't as simple as a Google search for the therapist closest to you. There are many factors to consider, including what kind of therapist you're looking for and how you'll know if the person is a good fit. Frischkorn suggests following a four-step process to find the right match. Once you do, that person can become your ally in the effort to strengthen your mental health.
Meet Your Mental Health Match
Step One: Narrow down the list of therapists in your area to three that are taking new clients. "To create your list of three, ask your friends, family members and primary care physician for recommended therapists," Frischkorn suggests. She also recommends searching on Psychology Today. "Once you have a list of 10 names, call and email all of them to see who is taking new clients. After you've identified three that are available, stop and move on to the next step," she says.
Step Two: Frischkorn then suggests setting up a short phone call with each of the three therapists. During this call, ask if they accept your insurance. If you are paying privately and cost is an issue, some providers are willing to work on a sliding scale based on how much you're able to pay. She also recommends asking if they are available on the days and times that work for your schedule, and if they have experience in the areas where you want do work (trauma, divorce, self-esteem, substance use). "If all of this is a match, ask them how often they recommend you meet with them for the therapy to be effective, what modality of therapy they practice and what that means," she advises.
Take some time to think about the kind of person you're most comfortable opening up to, as well. Are you looking for someone with a tell-it-like-it-is, no-nonsense attitude or someone with a slightly gentler approach? Do you want someone who employs more traditional methods of therapy or someone who likes to think outside the box? Therapy is very personal so you want someone who is going to speak to you in a language or with an approach to which you'll respond.
Step Three: Schedule an in-person or virtual video session with the therapist that seemed to be the best fit from your initial phone calls. Frischkorn says you should plan to meet with that person at least three times before ruling them out, unless you identify a significant red flag in your first session. "Often during the first session, people don't get a feel for the therapist because they are doing an initial evaluation, collecting practical information or listening to what brought you there. It takes a few sessions to establish if it will be a fit," she cautions.
Step Four: After those first few sessions, let the therapist know if you'll be moving forward with them or if it's not a fit. Are they a good listener? Are they communicating with you in a way that you understand? Consider if this is a person with whom you feel you can be honest. Frischkorn says that telling a therapist it's not a fit is common. "Please don't worry about hurting their feelings. It is most important that you have found a match because you will be investing time, energy and money in this process. Either get ready to dive in, or repeat step three with another therapist on your list," she says.
Is This Working?
Therapy isn't a magic pill, where one dose will give you dramatic results; it takes time and effort employing the skills you're taught to know if it's making a difference. Set short-term goals with your therapist early in the process and check in with them regularly to monitor progress. There will be times when you feel frustrated because it seems like not much is happening, but that could be viewed as an opportunity to dig deeper and explore new ways of thinking.
"There will be ups and downs in your therapeutic relationship, just as there are in other relationships in life," says Frischkorn. "Use this as a space to learn the skills to bridge connections, and challenge yourself to let your therapist know if they have upset you, you feel misunderstood or if there is something that is not working for you."
Frischkorn points out that there are specific events that should cause you to look for someone new:
- Giving their personal opinion instead of their clinical perspective
- Shaming or blaming you
- Sharing any of your confidential information (a HIPAA violation)
- Regularly cancelling/rescheduling or showing up late to appointments
- Engaging in an agenda that is different from yours
- Trying to encourage or deter medication as an option (this is for a psychiatrist to determine not a therapist)
Whether it's taking time to find the right person or the time invested once you get started, patience is part of the process. An increase in self-awareness, management of your symptoms and a better understanding of your feelings are all signs of progress as you travel along the path to improved mental health.