One of my absolute favourite things to be asked is whether I have any advice for finding a therapist. This is because:
- I’m a huge fan of mental health and people getting help and treatment.
- I’m extremely honoured that people trust me to treat their question with care, to keep their confidence, and to provide good advice.
- I really love telling people what to do.
I’ve been getting this question more frequently recently so I thought I’d write up a guide for easy reference. I’m located in Toronto, Canada, but most of this advice applies across the board. There’s also a list of self-guided resources at the bottom if you’re not quite ready to take that plunge.
Disclaimer: I have no professional training in health care of any variety. My credentials mainly consist of having had five therapists in four cities in two countries and interviewed many more, so I’ve done this a lot. Comments and suggestions super welcome.
If you know for sure you want a therapist but don’t know how to go about finding one
Congrats! I’m genuinely super psyched for you. I know this can be overwhelming, but it’s worth it, I promise. There are three main components to this process:
Figuring out what you want to address
Everyone has their own reasons for why they might decide to get into therapy. It can be a good idea to write some of these reasons down on a post-it, and have that in front of you as you navigate this.
Figuring out what you want to address doesn’t mean you have to know exactly what’s wrong. It just serves as a jumping off point to focus your search. The thing you want to address could be trauma, dealing with microaggressions, bereavement, grief, a recent fight with a romantic partner, paralyzing unspecified anxiety, inability to talk about feelings, or existential dread about the future of the world. (Not that I, uh, know anything about any of those things.)
If you know what you want to get out of therapy, that can be super helpful. This might include things like coping mechanisms for when you get stressed, strategies for setting boundaries or dealing with conflict, or just a better understanding of your own motivations. If you have no idea what this is, that’s fine, too. Therapy will help you figure that out!
Finding a therapist
I find that this is the part that people find the most intimidating. Depending on your personality, you can either ask for help, or start from scratch. I’ve done both, and both are great.
Ask for help finding a therapist
The quickest way to short-circuit your search is to see if your local university or health care network has a referral system. Typically, this involves someone interviewing you and assigning you someone they think will suit your needs, and you can skip the whole research piece altogether. Often these systems also work with student practitioners, who are typically much more affordable.
Here are the main ones I know of locally, though I’m sure there’s many more.
- The Living Institute Student Clinic located in Toronto
- The Ontario Psychotherapy and Counseling Referral Network
- The Toronto Institute for Relational Therapy student program
If you’re in post-secondary education, your school probably provides some degree of mental health support. Navigating these can be tricky and each system is different, so I recommend reaching out to your school’s student accommodation centre for more specific advice.
If you or your partner work somewhere that provides health benefits, chances are that job also provides an Employee Assistance Program with a toll-free confidential number you can call for support. EAPs often have short-term counselling available, and even if you need something more ongoing, it can still be a good resource for figuring out how to set that up.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of just asking your friends for a recommendation. You might be surprised by how many people have been to therapy.
Finding a therapist from scratch
I personally start all my searches on the Psychology Today search engine, which is extremely broad and covers most local practitioners. Licensing authorities like the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Services Workers , the College of Psychologists of Ontario, or the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario will also have their own search engines. I personally like Psychology Today because it tends to aggregate all of these and has the most robust search filters, but I know it can be super overwhelming. Do what works best for you!
Generally I suggest doing enough research to find 3–5 candidates you might be interested in talking to, talking to them on the phone, and setting up in-person sessions with 1–2. You don’t have to do everything at once, or on the same day. Try setting a few hours aside over the course of a week or so and putting that in your calendar; that way you don’t have the pressure of figuring it all out immediately and have some room to breathe.
Here are some of the things I like to think about as I research:
- Approach to therapy: There’s a ton of different approaches to therapy, and some of them will work better for you than others. It can be a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of them. The Psychology Today search engine, for example, will let you narrow your search by therapy style. You might need trauma-informed therapy to deal with your past, CBT to address specific behaviours you want to stop (or start), and mindfulness can be really effective at treating anxiety. If you want to talk about microaggressions, you probably want to look for a therapist trained in cultural sensitivity, queer inclusivity, or feminist approaches. However, if you feel totally overwhelmed by the idea of digging into all of that, it’s totally okay to skip this. Most therapists are familiar with multiple styles, and they’ll be able to guide you to something that works for you.
- Non-therapy experience: Most of the therapists I’ve had in my life had a different job before going into health care. One of them used to be a lawyer, so they’re really good at calling me on my rhetorical bullshit. Another is a novelist, so I really felt heard when I talked about my creative blocks. It won’t make or break your therapy relationship, but it might grease the wheels to already have something in common.
- Price / insurance accepted
- Years in the field
Even if you’ve been very selective in what kind of therapist you want and where you want to see them and how much you want to pay, sometimes you still find yourself with too many options. There are a lot of therapists out there, and all of them are on the internet. This is usually the point I start to despair.
Here’s the thing: it’s okay to be entirely arbitrary in your selection choices. You need to feel comfortable being vulnerable with this person, and as much as your rational brain might be like “I shouldn’t judge someone for having terrible taste in statement jewelry”, if your gut feeling about someone is mistrust for whatever reason, that can be a hard thing to get over. Here are things I have personally disqualified therapists for:
- Autoplay music or video on their website
- A website that looks like it was last under construction in 1996
- An overly polished website, I know, I’m a pain in the ass
- Over-reliance for spirituality-informed practices (which is fine for other people but probably not a die-hard atheist!)
- Weird decor in the photos of their clinic space
You’re not in a court of law. You don’t have to be perfectly fair. It’s definitely important to keep in mind the latent biases we inherit from society, such as associating nurture with femininity, or being attracted to people who look like us. You know who might be a really good person to help with that? A therapist.
If this still sounds like too much, I give you permission to just pick the first three names near you and call them for a consultation. You’re not proposing marriage, here. You don’t have to be 100% sure for therapy to still be helpful.
Deciding if that therapist is right for you
Call them for phone consultations
Many clinics and therapists allow you to book your appointments online or over email, but I find that phone calls are still the best way to get a feel of whether you’ll feel comfortable talking to that person.
Have a script
If you’re not used to talking on the phone, the thought of calling some stranger and trying to figure out whether you’re willing to expose the rawest part of you probably doesn’t sound super fun. I like to write down what I want to say first and have it open in front of me. This doesn’t have to be some big decision tree; it can be as simple as “Hi, my name is [name] and I’m located in [city/neighbourhood], and I’m looking for a therapist who can help me with [generic issue]. Can I ask you a few questions about your practice?“
You might catch them in the middle of a session with a client, in which case you’ll have to leave them a message. Don’t hang up! This is normal! Therapists’ voicemail boxes are confidential — just re-use the above and add “please give me a call back at [number]“.
If you find you didn’t click with someone on the phone, hanging up can also feel daunting. My go-to is “thank you so much for the information, I’m talking to a few other therapists as well and I will be in touch if I decide I would like to move forward“. They do this for a living; they’re not going to be offended.
Prepare some questions
It’s possible you are less anxious about being on the phone than I am, but if not, it’s a good idea to have some questions written down before you call. Here are the three questions I always ask:
- Tell me a little more about your general approach to therapy
- Do you have any experience with social justice-informed therapy or feminist practices?
- How would you rate your familiarity with technology and the internet?
These questions work for my specific needs because the reaction to the question tells me almost as much as the response. If someone starts being very flustered when I say “feminism” and tries to throw buzzwords at me, they’re probably not the right person. However, if they say that they haven’t specifically practiced in that area but can relate it to, say, social worker burnout, that’s a good sign. And I don’t necessarily need (and probably shouldn’t have) a therapist who’s Extremely Online, but if I’m talking about FOMO or information overload I would rather not have to preface it by explaining what Twitter is. You’ll have different questions, and different red flags. It’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what these are before you pick up the phone.
Also pay attention to how the conversation flows. Most therapists will ask you to expand a little bit on what specific issues you want to address – are they good at prompting you? Do they talk over you? Do you feel like the silence is awkward? These cues can tell you a lot.
Evaluate them in person
I honestly don’t have a ton of advice here, because you’ll know best whether you’re clicking with someone in person once you’ve made an appointment with them. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Feeling discomfort is not the same thing as not clicking with that therapist. Most of us are not used to talking about our feelings and being vulnerable with another person (or with ourselves) and sometimes we take that discomfort out on the person in front of us. It’s also super common to transfer our emotions for other people in our lives to the therapist. Unless there’s an egregious red flag, I would recommend sticking with a therapist for at least two sessions before making a decision.
- Your therapist is not your friend, and should not be your friend.
- Remember that your first therapist doesn’t have to be a perfect fit, and oftentimes they won’t be. But every therapy experience will teach you a little bit more about what you want out of an optimal therapy experience.
All that said, pay attention to the physical feeling in your body and trust your gut. Your gut’s pretty smart.
If you’re not quite ready to get a therapist
That’s super understandable; in-person therapy is expensive and time-consuming and daunting and hard. There are still lots of resources out there for you even if you don’t want to talk to a person face-to-face.
These are the ones I’ve read and can vouch for:
- The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown (TED talk here)
- When the Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress by Gabor Maté
- Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert
- The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (I know she can be A Lot but this book was good)
- Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg
- The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad
- Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
- Mental Traps: The Overthinker’s Guide to a Happier Life by André Kukla
Here are some books I’ve heard tons of good things about but cannot personally vouch for:
- The Mindful Way Through Depression by J. Mark G. Williams et al
- How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
- Maybe You Should Talk To Somebody by Lori Gottlieb
- The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
Guided meditation and mindfulness
Anxiety and depression and CBT training
Talk therapy apps
As your local resident paranoid tech professional, I personally don’t recommend these, because they’re unregulated and have very few accountability structures in place, therapists have spoken out about the lack of support for escalating dire situations, and they’re just generally rife with inevitable privacy and data retention issues. Plus, they’re often not much cheaper than a student session in Ontario. That said, whatever helps you is worth trying.
- This seems trite, but honestly the Wikipedia entry for cognitive distortion is a great starting place for recognizing anxiety symptoms.
- The podcast The Hilarious World of Depression
- Lots of governments provide mental health resources and worksheets on their websites for their constituents (in the absence of true funding for mental health care but hey who’s counting). Here are two sites I like:
The most important thing to remember is that this is a journey, not a destination. I’m really happy for you that you’re taking this first step. Whether you succeed in finding a therapist or not, the act of looking for a therapist is a signal to yourself that you are worth taking care of. You are. You’ve got this.