How to Find a Mental Health Counselor and What to Expect from Therapy

Last updated: Oct 10, 2019

You’re thinking about going to therapy, but you’re not sure how to find a good therapist. Do you rub a magic bottle until someone grants you three mental-health wishes? Do you stay at home until a gray-bearded mentor knocks on your door and invites you on a quest to enlightenment? Do you (and this seems most mysterious of all) wade through your insurance website until you find a doctor covered by your plan? It’s enough to make you pull the covers over your head. Don’t worry: We’re here to demystify the process. In recognition of World Mental Health Day, we're sharing tips on how to find a mental health counselor and what to expect from therapy.

A mental health counselor takes notes while talking to a female college patient

Step One: Remember Why You’re Doing This

There’s a reason you’ve decided to seek therapy or counseling.

Maybe you want to talk to someone because life has been hard. You’re struggling with anxiety, depression, a traumatic experience, or something else that overwhelms you. If so, know that you’re not alone; “more than 30 million Americans need help dealing with feelings and problems that seem beyond their control,” including life tragedies, depression, stress, and much more. Let that number sink in: 30 million. Asking for help doesn’t make you abnormal — it makes you normal. (And if you need immediate assistance, remember you can always reach out to a crisis center or call this lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.)

Sometimes, people think they have to be in mental distress before they seek therapy. While that’s definitely a good reason to book an appointment, it’s not the only one. You can be thriving and still benefit from counseling. As a Psychology Today article puts it, therapy is a tool to “make good lives great,” whether you want to find your purpose, improve your relationships, or reach a particular goal.

Don’t hesitate to make an appointment: You should be proud of attending therapy. (Ariana Grande agrees.)

Step Two: Find a Partner in Your Search

As you search for a therapist, you don’t have to go it alone. 

  • Make an appointment with your primary care doctor, who can assess your needs and refer you to the right mental health professional.
  • Ask someone you trust (a parent, best friend, or mentor) for assistance. For example, they can read reviews of potential therapists with you.
  • Talk to someone on campus, like Student Health Services, the counseling center, or a trusted faculty member. Many colleges offer counseling services or can connect you with community resources.

Step Three: Do Some Research

Hey, you’ve already begun this step just by reading this post! Congratulate yourself. Now you can take your research a step further and investigate:

The Different Types of Mental Health Professionals 

When you search for a mental health provider, you’ll find psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and more. All of them are professionals who can offer you support. But they have different levels of education, and they vary in the kind of support they can provide. For example, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication, but a licensed clinical social worker cannot. (Read more about each type here.)

Therapists can also specialize in different areas. If you are seeking help for a certain issue, you may want to find someone with that expertise:

  • If you’ve recently lost a loved one, you may benefit from a grief counselor.
  • If you struggle with anxiety, you may seek a therapist who specializes in that area.
  • If you and your romantic partner want to work on your relationship, you may choose a couples counselor.

The Different Approaches to Therapy

You don’t have to become an expert on Jungian philosophy to find a therapist. But you may want to ask a counselor you are considering about their approach to therapy, and determine whether it resonates with you.

Step Four: Start Your Search

You’ve done your research. Now, here’s how to start your search:

Check in With Your Primary Care Doctor

As we mentioned before, your primary care doctor or health center on campus might be your first stop along this journey. They can help you decide what mental health service will most benefit you and recommend a professional in your area.

Use the Resources at Your College

You may find what you need right on campus. According to an article in The Atlantic, “most four-year colleges and two-year colleges offer mental-health services and personal counseling on campus, and 58 percent of four-year colleges also offer psychiatric services (though only 8 percent of two-year colleges do).”

USF’s Counseling Center offers students individual, group, and couples counseling. In USF’s short-term individual counseling, students “work through personal, emotional and psychological problems” in free, confidential sessions with trained professionals. Group counseling topics range from meditation to emotional expression through art.

Use Search Tools on These Websites

You can search for a mental health provider through the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.

If you know that you’d like a professional who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, you can use the search tool on the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Organizations for particular mental health issues, such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or the International OCD Foundation, also offer directories.

Find Out Who’s Covered by Your Insurance Plan

If you have health insurance, you can log into your insurance website to find therapists covered by your plan. Once you have a list of names, dig deeper:

Ask for Recommendations from Friends and Family

You may be surprised how many people in your circle visit a therapist.

Consider Online Therapy

If you want to engage in a session without leaving home, consider working with an online therapist. This article recommends the best online therapy services.

Step Five: Narrow Down Your Options

You’ve found a few potential therapists, but how do you choose? Many mental health providers allow you to schedule a short phone consultation before you make an appointment. During the call, you can:

  • Ask about the length of the session, fees, and whether they accept your insurance.
  • Check their credentials. As this Mayo Clinic article suggests, you should ask about the therapist’s “education, training, licensing and years in practice.”
  • Find out more about their areas of expertise. Do they offer the specialty (i.e., grief counseling) that you seek?
  • Hear about their approach. The American Psychological Association recommends you ask, “What kinds of treatments do you use, and have they been proven effective for dealing with my kind of problem or issue?”

A college student discusses her challenges with a therapist during a mental health counseling appointment

What to Expect from Your First Session

Good for you: You’ve found a therapist and made an appointment. Here’s what to expect:

What to bring: Along with any required paperwork, you can bring questions for your therapist or notes about your symptoms. If you’ve been suffering from depression, for example, you may find it helpful to bring a mood journal that tracks how you’ve been feeling.

What you might talk about: During your first session, you and your therapist will get to know each other. You will probably discuss what’s led you to therapy, how they can assist you, and your goals for treatment. It’s okay to feel nervous, but remember that your therapist is a trained professional who wants to help you. As this psychologist quoted in Teen Vogue says, you “can’t fail at therapy.” Don’t worry about making a good impression. Give yourself permission to be open and vulnerable.

How to communicate with your therapist: Authenticity is key. That sounds simple, right? But a lot of people end up telling white lies in therapy, such as “pretending to agree with the therapist’s suggestions” or “pretending to find treatment helpful.” This is a mistake, because your therapist can only help you if you are being honest. Be upfront about any concerns you have and let them know what’s working (and what’s not).

What “confidential” means: Counseling sessions are protected under health privacy laws, which means “what you say to your therapist or psychiatrist really does stay between you and your therapist or psychiatrist,” with some exceptions.

How long it will last: Sessions usually last 30 minutes to an hour.

What you’ll do before your next session: Depending on your therapist’s approach and your needs, you may be assigned some homework, such as mindfulness exercises.

What to evaluate: It may take a few sessions for you to assess whether you’re comfortable with your therapist. Ask yourself the following questions, suggested by Psychology Today, to evaluate your experience:

  • Did I feel heard?”
  • “Was the session confusing or straightforward?”
  • “Did I feel respected?”

If the answer to these questions continues to be “no,” or you simply don’t feel comfortable with your therapist, it’s okay to find a better match. The right therapist for you is out there.

How many sessions to attend: You and your therapist can decide this together, depending on your needs and goals. You may find that a few sessions are all you need, or you may choose to continue for longer. Some people keep going to therapy "even after they solve the problems that brought them there initially," explains an APA article. "That's because they continue to experience new insights, improved well-being and better functioning."

Although finding a therapist can be hard work — and so can therapy itself — the results will be worth it.  You’re taking the next step towards a better life. Be proud of yourself.

If you have questions about USF’s counseling and wellness services, check out our Health and Wellness page. And if you need help now, call the USF Counseling Center’s 24-hour emergency line at 813-974-2831.