By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, has known individuals who’ve spent more time researching their dinner reservations than their next therapist. However, going to therapy is a vulnerable process. It requires honesty and hard work. It requires revealing your struggles.
As Howes said, “You wouldn’t want to blindly trust just anyone, would you?” This is why interviewing a therapist is vital.
Also vital is spending some time researching your concerns and treatment options, said clinical psychologist Marla Deibler, PsyD. This can help you pick a practitioner who meets your needs.
According to Howes, an interview provides two pieces of data: “the training, experience, and accessibility of that therapist; and a sense of how well you may work together.”
A good connection with your therapist is critical. In fact, the quality of the relationship “is widely understood to be the most important factor in a positive therapeutic outcome,” Howes said.
“You’re not hiring a resume, you’re hiring a person to work with you,” he said. He’s known many clients who’ve felt frustrated because they couldn’t connect with their therapist, even though they were in their insurance network and highly experienced with many degrees, accolades and books. That’s why it’s important not to stop the interview at logistical questions, such as a therapist’s specialty and their insurance coverage.
Sometimes, you might go out of network or pay a different price to get the connection you need, he said. “In the end, it’s all about the relationship, and that doesn’t always fit within the neatest plan.”
Howes shared this example:
“If I had an eating disorder, and went looking for a therapist, I’d ask if they specialize in eating disorders, how much experience they have with eating disorders, and what methods they would use to treat it. But great answers to those questions still won’t tell me how well we’ll work together. That’s why I’d want to ask some additional questions that illuminate more about how well our personalities mesh and how well we communicate.”
When interviewing potential therapists, Howes and Deibler suggested asking these questions:
What are your credentials?
Therapists may come from a variety of educational backgrounds. They might have bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees, said Deibler, director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC. They might’ve attended programs in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, social work or family therapy, she said.
Knowing a therapist’s educational background may give you information on whether they’ll be able to meet your needs, she said.
For instance, marriage and family therapists “are trained to view [an] individual’s difficulties from a family systems perspective.” They help individuals and families make changes to alleviate distress, she said.
Clinical psychologists are “the highest trained psychotherapists to work with psychiatric disorders, their diagnoses, and their treatment as well as psychological testing.”
What kind of training do you have in my concern?
According to Deibler, “The mental health field is wide.” You want to make sure that you’re getting the care you need, she said. For instance, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders doesn’t necessarily have expertise in schizophrenia, she said.
My main issue is _________. How have you treated it in the past?
Similarly, this question captures how the therapist has helped people like you, Howes said. This gives you a glimpse into how your treatment might look.
How does your training influence your work?
“Rather than spout off the laundry list of work experience, why not apply those experiences to their current work?” said Howes, who pens the blog In Therapy. “You’ll learn more than just where they were, but what they learned and why it’s important.”
What is your style in therapy?
Are you more reserved or active? Do you focus on treating symptoms or delving into the origin of problems?
According to Howes, “Some folks suggest you ask your therapist’s ‘theoretical orientation.’ But that’s a jargon question seeking a jargon response you wouldn’t understand unless you were a psych major or had done significant research.” This question gives you information about the therapist’s approach, which you can make sense of.
Is the treatment you provide evidence-based?
Depending on your concern, it may be helpful to find a therapist who uses evidence-based treatment. That is, you can look into the treatments that have been well-researched and found to be effective for people struggling with the same issue or illness as you.
For instance, “if you are struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the evidence-based treatment is a specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention,” Deibler said.
How long do you tend to work with clients? When do you know it’s time to end therapy?
“This question is a gift to you in the future,” Howes said. “At some point you’re going to wonder when — or if — therapy will end.” Maybe you’ll want therapy to continue, or you’ll want to have a finish line, he said. Either way, this is another question that gets at how the therapist works.
Why did you become a therapist?
Therapists who have strict boundaries around disclosure may feel uncomfortable with this question, but it’s a fair one, Howes said.
“A client opening their heart to a therapist deserves to at least know what brought them into the field in the first place. A personal story? Curiosity? Chance? Whatever the reason, it will tell the client something important about the therapist.”
Reflecting on the Interview
Pay attention to how the therapist responds to your questions and how comfortable you feel talking to them, Howes said. These interviews can be stressful for both you and the potential therapist. This is a good thing.
“[T]herapy is bound to include some tense times, so this interview may give you a glimpse [into] how the two of you handle stress together.”
Howes suggested reflecting on these questions:
- Are the therapist’s responses coherent and free from jargon?
- Does the therapist become defensive and evasive?
- Do they turn everything back on me?
- Do I feel dumb for asking a question?
- Do I feel heard, respected and taken seriously?
- Do I feel like I can talk without being interrupted or judged?
- Do I feel comfortable?
- Do I feel safe?
- Is it more intense than a casual chat with a friend, but less than a formal court of law?
- Could I eventually expose my deepest secret to this person, or would I have to hold back?
“In essence, therapy is just another relationship, but one requiring a high level of trust and communication,” Howes said. Again, it’s important to know that a therapist is competent and suited to your needs, he said.
But ultimately, you’re “looking for a partner for tackling your problems, someone who can walk with you during an important time in your life.”
And if you realize that you can’t work with that therapist after several sessions, you can stop going and find someone else.