Questions to Ask When Choosing a Mental Health Care Provider and Doctor

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR

Choosing a mental health provider or therapist is different from choosing a physician for treatment of physical ailments. When people look for a doctor, especially for treatment of a specific condition, one most often seeks a physician who has excellent credentials and experience in the necessary field. The personality characteristics of the doctor and his/her communication style, while not unimportant, generally play a secondary role in the choice.

Unlike most physician visits, mental health care can involve many hours of one-on-one communication with your therapist and perhaps an ongoing relationship over time. Therefore, choosing a mental health care provider involves a frank assessment of the therapist's personal and interaction style and how these match with your own personality and needs, in addition to an evaluation of the provider's clinical competence and reputation.

Before you begin selecting a therapist, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you have a preference for one particular kind of training or educational background? Mental health care providers come from a number of different educational backgrounds and may be psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, advanced practice nurses or clinical nurse specialists, or they may have another kind of background or training. Only therapists with certain educational backgrounds and licenses are legally allowed to prescribe medications. Is it important to you that the counselor be legally authorized to prescribe drug treatment if necessary?
  1. Would you like to find a therapist who specializes in one particular condition or type of problem?
  1. What kind of person are you most capable of talking to about your personal situation? Do you have a preference for a male or female therapist, or is this not relevant for your choice?
  1. How much time are you willing and/or able to commit to therapy?
  1. What kinds of therapy does your insurance cover? Does your insurance cover therapy only by certain types of therapists (e.g., medical doctors)? Must you choose a therapist from an approved provider list? Does your HMO require a referral to a therapist from your primary physician? If not all costs are covered, can you afford to pay the difference between covered costs and actual fees?