How to Choose a Therapist

The process of finding a therapist doesn't have to be anxiety producing. Sometimes when people decide they would benefit from seeing a therapist, it is because they are experiencing significant upset in their lives. It is not the ideal moment to be dealing with the stress involved in finding someone with whom they feel safe to ask for help. All sorts of people may hold themselves out as competent professionals to assist with emotional issues, but, just as in any field, discrimination is critical. An engaging personality is no guarantee of an ethical therapist with a strong set of skills. A therapist who is perfect for one person may not be a good fit for the next.

Choosing the right therapist calls for using common sense. By following these tips, you can increase your chances of finding a therapist who will help you reach your therapeutic goals in a highly satisfactory manner:

Finding a Therapist
Start at You can search for a therapist by name, location, or by clinical issues.
There are more than 7,500 licensed marriage and family therapists located in regions such as South Bay, East Bay, Greater Sacramento, Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Word of mouth is another good starting place. If someone you know and respect has had success with a particular therapist, it is possible that you might too.
Referrals from other professionals are a good bet. Doctors, lawyers, massage therapists, clergy, and teachers often hear about the work of therapists and can assist in your search.
Remember that virtually anyone can take out an advertisement or create a website. But a professional who participates in his or her professional organization is demonstrating a commitment to uphold high standards of care. For example, marriage and family therapists in California are likely to be members of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).

Interviewing Potential Therapists
Interview more than one possible therapist, and be wary of any therapist who discourages this idea. No one therapist is ideal for everyone.
Tell the therapist what you want from therapy. Did the therapist hear you and respond appropriately?
Inquire as to the potential therapist's education, training, licensure status, and membership in a professional organization. Check online with the Board of Behavioral Sciences to see if the therapist is licensed and if there has been any disciplinary action taken against him or her.
Find out what type of therapy is utilized by the therapist. Does the therapist focus on helping to change how you think (cognitive therapy)? Does she or he focus on working with the unconscious (psychodynamic therapy)? No single approach to therapy has been proven more effective than any other, and hundreds of approaches have been developed. Many therapists claim that problems you have had for a long time are more likely to require longer term treatment. You can often get relief fairly quickly with short-term treatment for a recently developed problem or a part of the problem.
Notice how you feel in the presence of the therapist. Is this someone you can imagine seeing repeatedly and feeling respected by and comfortable with? Does the therapist pay attention to you? Is he or she too distant? Too cold? Too effusive? Sufficiently empathic? Too sure of herself or himself? Is she or he defensive about your questions? Does the office have an atmosphere that is appealing to you? Regardless of a therapist's training or philosophy, the therapist/client relationship is largely what determines whether you will think the therapy will be effective or not.
Is the therapist experienced in working with issues similar to yours? While it is certainly not necessary for a therapist to have personally experienced whatever you are experiencing, you need some reassurance that your needs are not beyond the therapist's scope of competence.

What You Can Expect from a Therapist
Therapists have a duty to tell you before you begin treatment how much the service will cost. Fees vary according to expertise, years of experience, and market factors, including whether the therapy is offered through an agency or in private practice, and whether insurance is involved.
Often therapists offer treatment agreements that address such issues as what you can expect from therapy, how to get help in emergency situations, and the limits of confidentiality. Ask to see a copy of the therapist's agreement for services.
An ethical therapist will uphold clear professional boundaries. Generally speaking, therapy is best served when the therapist does not have more than one kind of relationship with a client. For example, therapists do not treat their own relatives, close friends, or people with whom they have another personal, professional, or business relationship. Under no circumstances is it appropriate for a therapist to have a romantic relationship with a client. A good question to ask a prospective therapist is how she or he understands and observes professional boundaries.

Ask Questions After You Start Therapy
As an informed consumer, you should ask the therapist questions throughout your treatment about the process of therapy. You have a right to know what is happening and why. You can review a list of frequently asked questions about therapy here.

Types of Therapists

In California, the law requires that anyone independently providing professional services to diagnose and treat mental disorders must be licensed, or be in pursuit of a license and in the employment and working under the supervision of a licensed clinician. All licensed clinicians in California have passed rigorous state exams and are required to regularly complete continuing education.

The types of therapists found in California include:

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists
Also known simply as MFTs or LMFTs, licensed marriage and family therapists are clinicians with a minimum of a master's degree in psychology, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or marital & family therapy. They are trained to understand family systems, and provide counseling and psychotherapy from a variety of therapeutic orientations. Marriage and Family Therapists practice early crisis intervention and brief, focused psychotherapy to resolve problems or reduce symptoms in the shortest time possible. They also have the expertise and skills to work with persons where more intensive, long term treatment is necessary to cure or relieve mental or emotional conditions.

Licensed Clinical Social Workers
Licensed clinical social workers have a minimum of a master's degree in social work and engage in psychosocial diagnosis, assessment and treatment, client advocacy, consultation, evaluations and research. They often work in hospitals, clinics, and agencies as well as in private practice. They work with clients through an environmental systems perspective. They also provide counseling and psychotherapy from a variety of therapeutic orientations.

Psychologists have a doctoral degree in psychology, educational psychology, education with a field of specialization in counseling psychology or education with a field of specialization in educational psychology from an approved or accredited educational institution. They often have advanced training in research methods, testing of brain functioning, psychological testing and evaluation, learning disabilities, and other aspects of psychology. They also provide psychotherapy.

Psychiatrists are licensed physicians and they may prescribe psychotropic medications, i.e., medicines to treat emotional or mental problems. Some psychiatrists only prescribe medications, and some offer therapy as well. They frequently collaborate with other professionals to manage medications while another type of therapist provides psychotherapy.

About MFT Credentials

Marriage and family therapists earn their licenses through a rigorous education, training, and licensing process similar to other mental health profession. A competent marriage and family therapist in California will be licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences and participate in a professional association such as the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT). A competent therapist will treat patients within the scope of their license and competence and will refer patients to other qualified practitioners when appropriate.

CAMFT Clinical Members have met the stringent education and training requirements that qualify them for marriage and family therapist licensure. Membership in CAMFT indicates a marriage and family therapist's dedication to their professional development. Members of CAMFT are expected to be familiar with and abide by the CAMFT Ethical Standards for Marriage and Family Therapists and applicable California laws and regulations governing the conduct of licensed marriage and family therapists, registered interns and trainees.

Before obtaining the MFT license, marriage and family therapists must first complete a two-year masters or doctoral degree program accredited by a regionally accepted body such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges or approved by the California Bureau on Private Post-Secondary and Vocational Education. The law specifies an integrated course of study that includes "marital and family systems approaches to treatment," "developmental issues and life events from infancy to old age," and "a variety of approaches to the treatment of children."

While a minimum of a master's degree is required, nearly one-fifth of California's marriage and family therapists also hold doctoral or other advanced degrees.

Applicants for the license must also complete 3,000 hours of supervised experience. Many often choose to complete a portion of the hours during the degree program to integrate their coursework with insights born of practical experience and apply the coursework while it is being learned. Post-degree registered interns may train with a qualified supervisor in governmental entities, schools, colleges, or universities as well as licensed health facilities, non-profit and charitable corporations and private practices.

An emphasis of the marriage and family therapist's training is diagnosis and treatment of psychopathology from a family systems and relationship perspective. The MFT's integrated course of study includes general training in a variety of other theoretical frameworks and in the use of various psychotherapeutic techniques. Students also have specific training in alcoholism and chemical dependency issues, human sexuality, child abuse detection and treatment, psychopharmacology, domestic violence, psychological testing, amongst other types of training. They may also obtain experience in administering and evaluating psychological tests.

Marriage and family therapists are licensed by the State of California pursuant to the Healing Arts Division of the California Business and Professions Code (beginning with Section 4980). The Board of Behavioral Sciences is the licensing and regulatory body for MFTs as well as for clinical social workers and educational psychologists. The MFT licensing exams, which are occupationally-oriented, competency-based tests, are a challenging undertaking. Among other key competencies, applicants are tested for their ability to assess, diagnose, and treat a range of presenting problems.