Updated: Oct 1
So, you’ve gotten to a place where you realize your mental health and relationships aren’t exactly where you want them to be. Maybe you’ve done some things to improve them like setting new health goals, meditating or reading self-help books. But now you’ve decided you need some additional support. But how do you actually find the right therapist for you? Well, that’s exactly what where this guide comes in handy. I’ll tell you step-by-step how to go from having no clue where to start to knowing how to find a therapist that is right for you.
1 | Ask for a therapist referral from a trusted person
As tough as it can be to open up to others about our psychological struggles, one of the best and easiest ways to find a therapist is to ask trusted loved ones and professionals for a recommendation. It’s likely that someone (probably more than one!) in your circle has seen a therapist and if they can recommend an effective therapist they worked with, that can be a helpful start for you.
You can also ask other health professionals that you already know and trust to refer you to someone in their referral network. You can ask your primary care physician, a physical therapist, massage therapist, nutritionist or other wellness professional for a therapist that they recommend. Most integrative health professionals
maintain contacts with other specialists in their area. Some even work together collaboratively and consult on cases together.
If you’re part of a religious or spiritual community, you can ask members of that organization if they have counselors on staff or if they can provide a referral to a trusted therapist in the area.
One thing to keep in mind is that you might not be able to see a therapist who is currently being seen by your intimate partner, a first-degree family member, a close friend or a colleague you work with closely due to potential conflicts of interest. But that person’s therapist could refer you to a trusted colleague.
2 | Get to know therapists near you through social media, blogs and videos
Do you follow mental health professionals on your social media outlets? Do you frequent mental health and psychology blogs or YouTube channels? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then you’ve already got a leg up in your search. If there is a therapist whose work you already respect and follow, find out if they are licensed in the state you reside in and if they are accepting new clients. Through consuming their content, you’ve already established trust with this person and you already have an idea of how they work.
If you don’t already follow therapists online, you can peruse social media profiles and blogs of therapists near you and see whose content you connect with most. We now have a greater glimpse into therapy practices and the therapy process than ever before. Take advantage of that benefit!
3 | Peruse therapist directories, ranking sites and reviews
There are many different ways of finding a therapist online these days. One of those ways is through therapist directory sites, like TherapyDen, ChoosingTherapy or Monarch. One of the main benefits of using a directory site is that you can easily filter results based on different search terms such as types of insurance accepted, types of specialties treated, types of therapy modalities used and others.
Keep in mind that most of these directories do very little (if any!) vetting to determine whether the professional is licensed or qualified to practice in any particular clinical area. Most are a pay-to-play model. Also, any therapists listed as “featured,” “premium” or any other designation most likely paid extra for that. So, don’t be fooled into thinking that a therapist is endorsed by the company in any way just because they are listed there. And be sure to do your own due diligence to vet the therapist to ensure they meet your standards.
Want to do your own research to determine if the therapist you’re interested in is currently registered or licensed?
Search the DCA’s online database. To check psychologists registered or licensed to practice in California, choose Board of Psychology from the drop-down menu. For all other therapist, counselor and social worker license types registered or licensed to practice in California, select Board of Behavioral Sciences.
A great way to get a sense of the best therapists in your area is to look at therapist ranking sites such as Three Best Rated and reading up on therapists with reviews. Reading client reviews and colleague testimonials can give you a sneak peek into what it’s really like working with that individual and what types of results former clients report having received from working with that particular therapist.
4 | Find out if your school offers counseling sessions
A little-known fact is that many community colleges, universities and graduate schools offer a limited number of no-cost therapy sessions to students (commonly 6-12 sessions per year according to the LAO.) Some graduate schools also have counseling centers wherein to train their own psychology students. These centers will often offer low-fee services to the community.
Pasadena (where my psychotherapy practice is located) is home to many colleges, universities and grad schools. Consider speaking with someone in the school counseling office or the health clinic to find out if no- or low-cost therapy sessions are available to you. Keep in mind that following the limited number of sessions for no-cost therapy, you’ll want to have a plan for continued care if the issue you’re seeking support with is likely to require more than 6 sessions to adequately address. Your school counselor should have a list of referrals to therapists in the community to refer you to.
5 | Look into if your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program or other wellness programs
Some employers offer what is called an Employee Assistance Program or EAP, which helps workers get no-cost short-term therapy aimed at helping them manage mental health issues and life situations that are impacting their attendance and performance at work.
These programs typically provide 3-6 sessions — some offer up to 8-12 sessions — (according to OpenCounseling.com) at no cost to the employee and can be a great option for individuals who are dealing with a specific issue and only require minimal intervention and support to address it.
Keep in mind that because EAPs are aimed at helping the employee return to work, the therapist may need to direct the focus of sessions toward work-related issues. Also, because the sessions are so limited, the therapist will likely need to provide psycho-education and teach basic self-help tools versus doing in-depth exploratory therapy.
Once your covered sessions are completed, and if your mental health issues aren’t resolved, the EAP should refer you to ongoing services.
Some employers also offer employee wellness programs such as discounted sessions with local therapists. Consider speaking with your company’s HR department to find out if your employer offers an EAP or other employee wellness programs to its employees so that you can take advantage of these benefits.
6 | Learn about the different types of therapy
Therapy-seekers have become much savvier in the past several years about what they are looking for in therapy, including understanding different types of therapy modalities and what types of therapy are most effective for different types of issues.
Here is an overview of therapy orientations and what issues they are effective at treating. (There are innumerable types of therapy approach, so this is far from an exhaustive list.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Looks at the interactions between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This is often a more structured, directive and goal-oriented approach to therapy. It is effective at treating many mental health issues, especially OCD, anxiety, phobias and insomnia.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy – Uses the core principles of mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness and distress tolerance to help clients with myriad mental health issues. It is often delivered as a combination of individual therapy sessions, skills groups and phone coaching. It is effective at treating those with eating disorder, personality disorders and self-harm.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – Helps clients connect to their values and take action that is in alignment with those values. Assists clients in developing mindfulness skills to observe thoughts, versus reacting to them. Effective at treating anxiety, depression and OCD.
Somatic & Trauma-Informed Therapy – These therapies help clients gain an awareness of body sensations that arise during session to release tension and trauma from the body. They are aimed at guiding clients in addressing traumas over the lifespan that are often at the root of many psychological issues. Some of these modalities include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Trauma Resiliency Model (TRM) and Somatic Experiencing (SE.) Effective at treating issues stemming from trauma such as PTSD, complex trauma, depression and anxiety.
Existential & Humanistic Therapy – This type of therapy sees humans as growth-oriented and sees therapy as a supportive place to encourage that inevitable growth. In this type of therapy, the therapist acts as a witness and a guide, and is much less structured than behavioral therapies. There is also an honoring of the existential crises that humans go through. Effective at treating depression, anxiety and helping clients with personal growth.
Internal Family Systems – Helps clients identify “parts” or sub-personalities within them that can create inner conflict and psychological symptoms. This therapy assists the client in creating greater harmony and communication between parts to allow for greater inner peace and better decision-making. This process also helps the client heal from and integrate trauma experiences. Effective at treating anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and substance use disorders.
When considering what type of therapy approach you might benefit from most, consider your personality type (e.g. whether you more draw to a structured approach or an organic, exploratory approach,) what issues you’re facing (e.g. some therapies are more effective at treating certain issues than others) and what fits within your personal values and preferences (e.g. a spiritual approach to therapy vs. a secular/evidence-based approach to therapy.)
Once you’ve identified what type of therapy you’d like to pursue you can either use Google as a tool, e.g. searching for “somatic therapy Pasadena” or you can consult an organization specific to that type of therapy, e.g. United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP) has a “Find a Therapist” tool.
7 | Factor in insurance, affordability and budget
If affordability is a concern, here are some additional options to consider:
Insurance, Superbills, HSA and FSA Plans
In-network refers to the therapists who are in the insurance network and get paid directly by the insurance company for therapy services provided. You will likely pay a co-pay.
If your insurance covers in-network therapy and you’d like to utilize it, you can either call your insurance company directly for a list of in-network providers and begin calling them to determine who has availability or you can use a therapist directory site and filter by your insurance.
Keep in mind that insurance companies aren’t able to keep up with who is accepting clients currently, and so their list of available providers may be out-of-date. You may find yourself calling several therapists before you get a call-back.
Another factor to consider is that when going in-network, you have a more limited pool of therapists to choose from and so you may not be able to be as choosy around things such as the therapist’s treatment modality or clinical specialties.
Lastly, there is less autonomy for you to make decisions regarding your treatment when it comes to session length, frequency and sometimes even session focus, as the therapist is beholden to what the insurance company will reimburse. For example, let’s say you want to discuss spiritual or personal growth concerns as the main focus of therapy. You’ll need to have a medically justifiable diagnosis and treatment plan in order to qualify for services. These issues are unlikely to make the cut.
Out-of-network refers to all therapists who are not in your insurance network and require clients to pay out-of-pocket for their therapy.
If you have a PPO insurance plan that offers out-of-network mental health services, you may be able to have some of the cost of your therapy reimbursed to you from the insurance company through the use of a document called a superbill.
A superbill is a receipt for sessions you’ve already paid for and completed generated by the therapist with some necessary information for the insurance company such as a diagnosis and other codes to facilitate the reimbursement process.
Most out-of-network therapists will gladly provide a monthly superbill. There are companies like Reimbursify that can help you maximize your reimbursement and they take a small commission from successfully reimbursed claims.
If you plan to use your out-of-network insurance benefits, I recommend you call your insurance company before the start of therapy and ask them the questions listed on this insurance question fact sheet. You want to make sure that there are no surprises when it comes to the amount you expect to have reimbursed to you.
Health Saving Accounts and Flexible Spending Accounts:
You can also look into the using pre-tax HSA or FSA funds to pay for your therapy to offset some of the cost. If you have an HSA/FSA debit card, many therapy practices are able to charge it in the same way they would process a debit or credit card. If you plan to use these funds, be sure to check with the company that manages your HSA/FSA to ensure that the therapy services are eligible to be paid for with that account.
Affordability and Budget
The cost of therapy can vary widely depending on many factors including therapy setting, location, type and the therapist’s credentials, education, training, specialty and years of experience. I’ll break down common therapy out-of-pocket price ranges and how to find care at each price bracket per session.
$0 | Community-based – If you have a federal- or state-funded insurance program, such as Medi-Cal, your care will not cost you anything and will likely take place in a community mental health agency like Pacific Clinics.
There are also non-profits that cover the full cost of therapy for uninsured or underinsured individuals such as Rise Above the Disorder.
Check out the Pasadena Mental Health Resource Guide for an exhaustive list of social services in the area.
$30-80 | Low-fee Counseling Center or Group Therapy – If you are uninsured or underinsured, but don’t qualify for Medi-Cal, you may benefit from receiving services from a low-cost counseling center like Rose City Counseling Center.
$100-150 | Sliding Scale Therapy – Many therapy practices employ pre-licensed therapists in their practices at lower rates than licensed therapists. Pre-licensed therapists are those who are registered with their licensing board and currently gaining the necessary supervised experience hours and state exams for licensure. California Integrative Therapy employs pre-licensed therapists at a reduced rate.
$175+ | Full-Fee Therapy – If the out-of-pocket cost of therapy is not an issue for you, then you have your pick of the litter when it comes to which therapist you’d like to work with. As long as their fees fit your budget, the therapist is accepting new clients and the therapist believes you are a good fit for their practice, you’re in business.
8 | Call therapists who offer free phone consultations
Most private practice therapists offer a free phone consultation lasting anywhere from 10-30 minutes. This is an opportunity to get all of your questions about therapy and about their therapy practice answered to determine a good fit. The therapist will also ask you some questions to determine if they believe they can help you with your particular issue.
Questions to ask in a therapy phone consultation:
Are you accepting new clients at this time?
Can you tell me about your education, experience and credentials?
Do you specialize in treating [this particular issue I’m having]?
What type(s) of therapy approach(es) do you use in your practice?
What does a typical session with you look like?
How long do clients typically have therapy with you before meeting their treatment goals?
Do I need to come weekly?
What days and times are you available for sessions?
Do you have any upcoming travel or leave of absence that will take you away from your practice for an extended period of time?
Do you provide a monthly superbill for clients using out-of-network benefits?
Do you have lived experience in [this particular issue]?
Do you identify as [this particular demographic]?
Do you actively practice inclusion and anti-racism in your practice?
What are your practice policies that I should know about?
Are you or have you been in your own therapy?
How do you handle conflict? What if a client disagrees with you on something you’ve said?
Beyond listening to the content of their answers, also notice how you feel during the call. Does this person put you at ease or make you feel nervous? Do they seem to listen to you or cut you off? Do you get a sense that the therapist is telling the truth or exaggerating certain areas of expertise? Listen to your gut on this call as it will give you lots of information. You need to feel comfortable with this person in order to gain the benefits of therapy. The consultation call is a great opportunity to determine whether you feel a sense of trust and rapport with the therapist.
9 | Determine whether you want in-person therapy or online therapy
Is in-person therapy important to you? Do you prefer the convenience of online therapy in California? Do you like the option of having a blend of the two depending on scheduling and convenience? Or maybe if you find a great-fit therapist you’re flexible to meet on their terms.
Ever since the pandemic, many therapists have maintained online-only practices, and so if you’re dead set on in-person, then this is an important question to ask potential therapists before moving forward.
If this is an important factor for you, you can type “in-person therapy near me” into Google to see who offers this.
10 | Search by mental health specialty
One thing you’ll want to keep in mind when looking for a therapist is to ensure that they have the necessary experience and training to help you with your particular issue. One way to go about this is to search Google by specialty such as “anxiety therapist Pasadena” or “therapist for millennials Pasadena.” Another option is to consult an organization that specializes in a particular issue and find therapists that are associated with that organization. For example the Anxiety and Depression Association of America therapist finder.
Keep in mind that there are certain populations and issues that most private practice therapists don’t treat. Here is a list of client populations and issues better suited to a specialist or a treatment center and some local recommendations for each one:
Children and Adolescents: The Center for Connection
Couples Counseling: Securely Coupled
Family Therapy: Welcome Home Family Therapy
Addiction Recovery: MultiConcept Recovery
OCD Recovery: CBT SoCal
Eating Disorder Recovery: Reasons Eating Disorder Center
Personality Disorders and Suicidality: Clearview Outpatient
11 | Weigh in on therapist education, training and credentials
Now here is where things can get quite confusing, even for folks in the counseling profession. Here is a breakdown of what all these letters at the end of a therapist’s name actually mean.
For the degree, you might see M.A., M.S., Psy.D. or Ph.D.
M.A. or M.S. indicates a master’s degree in the arts or sciences, respectively. A masters in counseling psychology generally requires 2-3 years of schooling to obtain.
A Psy.D. is a doctoral degree that is more focused on preparing students for clinical settings, whereas a Ph.D. in clinical psychology is a doctoral degree that is more focused on preparing the student for academic or research settings. Psy.D. programs can take 4-6 years to complete whereas Ph.D. programs can take 5-7 years to complete.
For the license type, you might see LMFT, LCSW, LPCC, all of which require a minimum of a master’s degree:
LMFT - Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
LCSW - Licensed Clinical Social Worker
LPCC - Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
Or you might see Psy.D. or Ph.D. which indicates the individual is licensed as a Clinical Psychologist.
All of the above license types require 3,000 supervised clinical hours of experience and applicant must pass two state board exams.
Now, if that wasn’t all confusing enough, you may also see the following designations for the master’s level clinicians:
AMFT - Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
ASW - Associate Clinical Social Worker
APCC - Associate Professional Clinical Counselor
Or you may see the term Psychological Associate for the doctorate level clinicians.
All of the above designations indicate that the therapist is pre-licensed (i.e. they are either still accruing hours of experience, or haven’t yet passed their board exams.)
Now you may be wondering, with all of this alphabet soup going on, what is actually important to note?
Does therapist degree type matter?
Not really. Now, you might be thinking, isn’t it better to see a therapist with a doctoral degree versus a masters? I don’t think so. Most of the additional coursework in a doctoral program is related to research and psychological testing, which doesn’t necessarily make for a more skilled therapist.
Does therapist license type matter?
Not really. There is tons of overlap between the types of course that all mental health professionals must take in graduate school and also continued overlap in the type of continuing education therapists and psychologists receive over the course of their careers. Here are some nuanced areas of mental health and relationship health that each license type focuses on.
LMFTs, even when working with individuals, are taught to see mental health as not existing in a vacuum, but always as intimately connected to the quality of one’s relationships
LPCCs are taught to focus on the needs of individuals and to diagnose and treat mental illness from this perspective.
LCSWs are taught counseling from the perspective of social justice and how client’s mental health issues can be caused by or exacerbated by social inequality issues.
Clinical Psychologists are more likely to work with severe mental illness and are also trained in areas beyond psychotherapy such as psychological testing.
Does licensed vs. pre-licensed therapist matter?
Not really. A pre-licensed therapist can be incredibly skilled and a licensed therapist can be mediocre or sub-par. The licensure process, though aimed at creating skilled clinicians, is not an infallible process. And according to Ben Caldwell, author Saving Psychotherapy, therapists’ effectiveness in creating positive client outcomes plateaus after their first year of experience. By that math, any therapist you see who has at least one year of experience is about as effective as they’re going to get, according to scientific studies.
12 | Look into relevant therapist demographics, lived experience and languages spoken
Is it important to you that your therapist…
Has certain shared experience with you? For example, marriage, being a parent, having their own mental health struggles?
Shares a certain demographic as you? Such as gender, LGBTQIA+ identity, SES, race or ethnicity or religious affiliation?
Is older, younger or your same age?
Speaks in/provides therapy in your native language or ASL?
Consider which of these elements of the therapist’s identity are important to you. If finding a therapist with one of these attributes is important to you, using a directory like Inclusive Therapists can be a great resource. Or you can type in a relevant search term into Google such as “female therapist” or “millennial therapist.”
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as the “perfect” therapist. But you can find a therapist who is a great fit for your needs. Keep in mind that the most important element in determining the effectiveness of your therapy is the relationship you have with the therapist. As your therapy progresses, you can give your therapist feedback about what is working and what isn’t, so that they can tailor their approach to your needs.
Know that in the end, all of this work on the front end to fit the right fit will be so worth it. Remember that the goal here is for you to improve your mental health and relationships. Little else in life is an important as those goals.
I hope you were able to get a whole lot out of this article. If you think I might be a good fit for your therapy needs, take a moment to peruse my website. You’ll find lots of information about how I work and who I do my best work with.
I wish you the best of luck in finding a great fit, whether that’s with me or one of the other many great therapists out there. Be well.
Prefer to watch or listen? Check out my video on this topic!
If you need help right away, please utilize the following crisis resources.
This post is meant for educational purposes only and isn’t a substitute for diagnosis, assessment or treatment of mental conditions. If you need professional help, seek it out.
About the author
Hi! I'm Natalie. And my passion is helping ambitious, creative millennials achieve everything they want in life, career and relationships. I provide in-person therapy in Pasadena and online therapy throughout California. Click here to get started.