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 well-being journey. But when it comes to selecting a mental health professional, it can take a few rounds to find someone who fits (it's a bit like dating in that way). So we asked someone in the space exactly what to look for on your search: According to licensed clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., "The more questions you ask in those initial phases, the better," she says on the mindbodygreen podcast.
Before diving into those questions, Carmichael emphasizes 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 lay 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 in your own routine." 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: How many people have they seen who are (sort of) similar to you? And without going into too many details, what results happened for them?
"Fair enough, a therapist could say, 'Well, I don't know you very well yet,'" notes Carmichael. "And every person's different, but I personally feel like they should be able to have some idea of who you are, what you're dealing with, and give some sense of: 'Yes, I work with people in situations like yours all the time,' or, 'Oh, this is very rare.'" That way, you can have an idea of how you two will work together.
2. What books are on your bookshelf?
Again, the therapist will only have a limited amount of information about you in just one initial session. But given that brief amount of time, Carmichael suggests asking what books they might suggest you read in between sessions. "The types of books that 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 my office because their previous therapist wasn't a good fit is that they would show up and [the previous therapist] would hardly remember what I had said the week before. And [they] would have to spend the first 10 minutes trying to re-center themselves and remember where they were," Carmichael explains. Rather, "they should be greeting you with a piece of paper, so they know what happened last week, and they 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. That said, Carmichael 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, it's your job. I need you to take ownership and responsibility,' I would not be so into that myself," Carmichael says. It is important to take ownership and responsibility, yes, but 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. And you should never feel prohibited from speaking up and asking about those certifications.
You could ask: What do those letters mean? Was that a certification program? How many weeks, months, or years was that? "[You could say], 'I just don't know your space, and I'd really like to learn the details,'" says Carmichael. "And if the person seems dodgy or defensive, that's not good. If they seem welcoming and they really want to have that conversation, that's a good sign."
There's a whole lot you can do to bolster your mental health this year, but if seeing a therapist is on your agenda, these questions can help you in your search for the right 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.