Wednesday, January 18, 2012


By: Randy Walton, Ph.D.
If you decide to seek counseling or therapy, achieving the results or outcome you desire is important. For this to occur, it is important to be an informed consumer. Part of being an informed consumer includes gathering information, educating yourself and having some skepticism about the service or product you are buying.
First, it is helpful to know whether the service you are seeking works.  Fifty years of research unequivocally demonstrates that psychotherapy/counseling work! Review and comparison of hundreds of research studies demonstrate that people who engage in treatment (i.e., psychotherapy and counseling) are better off than 80 percent of the people receiving no treatment for similar problems. So seeking a therapist can be exactly what you need to assist in making the changes you wish to make.
However, what works for one person may not work for another. Research has demonstrated that a good “fit” or “match” between therapist and client is the single most important factor in achieving a positive outcome in therapy. The question then becomes, “how do I find a therapist who is a good fit or match for me?”
Finding a Therapist - Narrowing the possibilities
There are various ways to identify prospective therapists who might fit your needs. If the process is new to you, think about how you typically narrow the possibilities and select other service providers and products. For example, consider how you select home repair contractors, physicians, and lawyers, how you decide what car or TV to buy, or how you determine potential colleges/schools and neighborhoods in which to live.
You might start by talking with friends, family members, or acquaintances who may have first hand experience or knowledge of therapists in your area. Your medical professional is likely to have the names of some therapists to recommend. Searching online (for example, “psychologist Williamsburg”) or in the yellow pages for local psychologists, counselors, social workers, and psychiatrists can provide a large list of potential therapists from which you can begin to narrow the possibilities. Additionally, some health insurers only cover certain therapists who are part of their network or panel of providers. If you have health insurance, call the insurance company to determine if there is a list of therapists they cover or recommend (a toll free number for your insurance company is usually on the back of your insurance card).
When gathering information about potential therapists from these sources, review information in the yellow page ads, Internet sites, or other sources that give you an idea about what services a therapist offers, specialty areas, philosophy of treatment, etc. If you have a specific concern, problem, or preference, look for therapists who advertise experience or specialization in that area. Make a list of potential therapists who seem like they may meet your needs.
An important consideration in selecting a therapist is determining whether the therapist is licensed. Therapists are licensed in the state where they practice, and clearly identify their license by profession in online or printed advertising, e.g., Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, or Licensed Professional Counselor. Psychiatrists are also licensed to do therapy by the state in which they practice, although not all psychiatrists do therapy. A professional license indicates that a therapist has a required level of specialized education, training, experience, and awareness of ethical guidelines identified by that profession and the State Licensing Board. However, having a professional license does not guarantee therapeutic effectiveness any more than a driver’s license guarantees that all drivers are equally skilled.  There are sometimes other therapist designations that vary from state to state, e.g., Certified Substance Abuse Counselor or Marriage and Family Therapist. Further information about any licensed therapist is available on your State government websites related to health professions, e.g., Virginia Department of Health Professions. Some agencies or therapists also utilize graduate students who conduct psychotherapy and counseling under direct supervision of a licensed, experienced professional, and this is also an option to consider.
Different professions (e.g., Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Professional Counselor, or Psychiatrist) emphasize different areas of knowledge and training. For example, clinical psychologists have training in psychological evaluation and testing as well as counseling and psychotherapy. This does not mean that all clinical psychologists offer psychological evaluations as part of their practice – however, they should all be able to intelligently discuss and answer questions about psychological evaluations and testing.  If you are looking for a therapist, there are excellent therapists in all of the professions listed. Again, the key factor to a successful therapy experience is finding a licensed therapist who is a good match for you, including your needs, preferences, goals, and experience of what has helped and not helped in the past.
When you have a list of therapists who seem like they may offer what you want, the next step is to call prospective therapists for more information.
For details stay tuned to next week's blog post,  A Guide for Seeking Psychotherapy or Counseling - Part Two.

Randy Walton, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who works full-time as Lead Clinician at Colonial Behavioral Health, and conducts a part-time private practice ( in the Williamsburg, Virginia area. He has been in full-time clinical practice for over 25 years.