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?

After you have formed some ideas about what kind of therapist may be right for you, you should obtain several recommendations (your primary physician can be a good referral source) and talk to the therapist in advance before making a commitment. You may have to schedule and pay for an initial session in order to do this, but it is well worth the cost and effort to find a therapist with whom you can work effectively. Important questions you should ask a potential therapist include:

  1. What kind of therapy does she/he practice? Will you have individual sessions, group therapy, or sessions with other family members? Are you comfortable with his/her philosophy in this regard?
  1. What is your therapist's position on pharmaceutical therapy for mental conditions?
  1. What hours is she/he available to see you? How often does she/he recommend seeing you initially? Does this fit into your schedule and expectations?
  1. What are the fees? If you cannot attend a session, are you required to pay for it anyway? Will she/he wait to accept payment from the insurance company, or must sessions be paid for immediately? You should be clear up front if you anticipate any financial difficulties; often a payment plan can be arranged to suit your needs.
  1. Is she/he available and reachable in the event of an emergency? How does she/he feel about contact between scheduled sessions (e.g., phone calls) should the need arise? After hours, is there always someone covering for the practice who is available in the event of a sudden need or emergency?

After you've made your choice, it's perfectly fine to give the situation a trial run if you wish. Explain that you'd like to schedule a trial phase of one or more sessions to see if this feels right for you. If it doesn't, keep looking. The ultimate success of mental health care depends upon a positive therapist-patient interaction.

Please visit our Mental Health Center for additional information.


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