Questions to ask a prospective therapist

Archived Q&A and Reviews

See also: Choosing a Mental Health Professional
September 2003

I am trying to help my 20 year old daughter find a good therapist. I would like to find a list of questions that one asks a potential therapist that would help her to narrow down her choices and find someone that will be perfect for her. It seems like a good list of questions could really help one to find a good person. I tried to help her a couple of years ago, but she couldn't connect with the person we found.

You didn't say why your daughter is looking for a therapist or where/how you've begun your search. It may not be possible to find a perfect match, but a good rapport is essential to effective therapy. Therapists often have specialties or areas of interest and looking for one that fits your daughter's reason for wanting therapy is a good place to start. Susan
Hi- I've been through this process many times, and what I like is to have a phone conversation first with questions, and then if I feel like the person might be a possibility, schedule a meeting. I've met many therapists (some for 2-3 sessions) that I didn't choose to continue to work with, which is of course a financial investment, but it's such an important relationship that I find it worth it. It critical that a therapist be a person you can open yourself to, and there's no way to really determine that without sitting with them.

Your daughter really should be making these calls herself- maybe she is, but that wasn't clear from your post. If she's not motivated herself, it won't work no matter how good the therapist.

So, I ask them about their training, their philosophy of therapy, whether they work mostly in historical issues or current (I like a mix, but personally am not interested in strictly behavioural work- although it seems to be good for many people), how long they've practiced, what they consider their specialty (ies), if there's any particular population that they work with most, what their feeling about medication is (I think that they can be of great value if expertly prescribed) and if they work with a particular psychiatrist re meds- etc. The answers are important to me, but what it feels like to talk to them is equally important. I've done enough therapy that I know what I like- to be recognized and listened to, to be compassionately pushed, and to feel like the therapist is really in my corner. I don't like to be babied or patronized, and I want someone smart and wide awake.

So, your daughter might make notes about why she is seeking therapy, her hopes and fears about it, her thoughts about what therapy is, what kinds of personalities she is most comfortable with- etc. And, she can think about whether she wants to work with a man or woman, an older or younger person, a gay or straight person- etc. These things may or may not be important to her and it's not necessary to decide them ahead of time- they will become clear in the process of talking to people. If her problems include being vague and indecisive about what she wants, well that's the starting point right there!

Good luck.

I think that any really good therapist will be happy to spend some time with you by phone answering your questions (if they say you have to come in to have such questins answered, cross them off your list). I would want to know how they would start tackling my particular issue (the one I'm coming in for help with), what approach they stand by, whether they mainly listen or also give their opinions, how often they would want you to come (I personally don't believe that coming once a week is the only way to conduct successful therapy), what would they say if you decided to take a break from therapy for a while (again, someone good will say that that's up to you and will not try to guilt-trip you into staying), how they handle cancellations, whether they charge for time spent on the phone with you, whether they are on any Preferred Provider plans or would help you bill your insurance, and what they believe about what helps people grow. Watch out for therapists who are too fascinated by trouble and will not notice the healthy parts of you, focusing only on the ''problems''. I think that when you meet with them, you should feel the excitement and nervousness that come with sharing your life story with someone new to you, but that you should not feel unduly pressured or uncomfortable. It should feel like ''Wow, that was hard work, and I've got a lot to think about!'' rather than, ''Gee, now I feel REALLY crummy and hopeless...''. Look for a good ''fit'' between the two of you and a growing sense of trust that this person truly applauds your progress and milestones. Good luck! Top notch therapy can not only move you past seemingly impossible roadblocks, but can give you a shift in perspective that is nearly magic.

You can also ask other people who they've seen and how it worked, as first-person accounts are one of the best ways to get an accurate understanding of how this therapist might go about helping.

A local Marriage and Family Therapist