How to Get a Therapist – An Illustrated Guide

All of us probably know someone (or have been someone) who thought about (or even openly talked about) how we “need therapy” and “should probably see a therapist.” Despite knowing this, many times we avoid, delay, or just never follow up on getting ourselves the care we know we need. There are lots of reasons people don’t seek help and those reasons can be really complex (and, often, things we need to address as a culture), but sometimes we don’t follow up simply because we aren’t sure exactly how one goes about getting a therapist. In this post, we’ll run down a step by step list for how to get a therapist:

1. Crunch the Numbers.

Hand-drawn doodle of a woman doing finances on a laptop. Text above her reads, "Decide how you'll pay and calculate what you can afford."

First things first, before we talk about starting therapy, let’s talk about how to figure payment. Basically, there are four categories of payer-types, and these types of payments will impact how you get in contact with a therapist:

Ways to Pay for Therapy:

1. Insured and covered for Mental Health treatment,

2. Not covered by insurance, but able to pay out of pocket,

3. Able to pay a reduced rate, or

4. Not able to afford any payment for treatment.

Thankfully, therapy is available for people in every category. Free counseling can be AMAZING, but often it isn’t, due to free-clinics generally rotating through pre-licensure therapists or inconsistent scheduling.

If you can afford to pay any amount, you may find better results by seeking a therapist or clinic with a sliding scale that fits your budget (Open Path is a good resource for locating therapists with sliding scales starting at $30 per session)

What Is Sliding Scale Payment for Therapy?

Some therapists offer a reduced rate fee called a sliding scale

“Sliding Scale Fees” are fees that are reduced for low-income individuals. Usually, this is done via a conversation with the therapist or office manager about what you are able to afford, and what the therapist is able to accept. Most therapists have to limit the number of sessions they’ll do sliding scale per week, so the waiting list to see a therapist on at sliding scale might be longer than for those who can pay the market rate.

How Much Should Therapy Cost?

There’s no hard and fast rule for how much therapy should cost, since rates vary according to a therapist’s training, experience, the specific issues they have specialized in, and by geographic region. You can expect most full-price rates for therapy to be around $120-$150 per 50-minute session in an urban area, and $80-$120 in less urban areas.

How Do I Know What I Can Afford to Pay?

If you ask for sliding scale rates, you can expect to be asked, “what can you afford to pay per session?” There’s no fixed percentage, like there is for calculating what you can afford for a mortgage or car payment, but the number you land on should be a number that has a cost to your lifestyle without putting you at risk for defaulting on loans or stressing about whether you’ll be able to pay rent. The price you pay for therapy should cut into your budget for non-essentials: i.e. what you’d usually spend on things like entertainment, dining out, travel, or alcohol.

Do I Need A Referral?

Maybe. If you are trying to use your insurance to pay for Mental Health Therapy, you might need to start with a referral from a primary care doctor. Read your policy to find out. If you are paying out of pocket (full price or sliding scale) you don’t need a doctor’s referral or even a diagnosis/assessment in order to start seeing a therapist.

2. Get Recommendations and Do Research.

How to get a good referral for a therapist: ask for recommendations; research (google, open path, psychology today, your insurance, thewalnutlist.com; ask friends, your doctor, or other people you trust. Pro-tip: asking a friend if they know a good therapist is a way to ease into conversations about mental health.

Once you’ve figured out what you can afford to pay, you can begin gathering names. I think one of the best ways to get a therapist is through speaking with people who know you. Friends, teachers, your doctor, and other health care professionals (chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, etc) are great resources- and even hair stylists can be a surprisingly good resource for connecting with good professionals in a number of areas.

HINT: If you struggle to talk about your mental health with friends and family, asking for a therapist referral can actually be a great segue to enter that conversation.

I’ve Heard About Therapist Orientation, Do I Need to Know What I Want?

Most of us learned in Psych 101 about the history of psychology and a little bit about psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, and potentially other therapeutic orientations. Unless you feel very drawn to one therapeutic orientation, it’s okay to not think much about this when choosing a therapist. A number of studies have found that therapeutic orientation doesn’t significantly influence the outcome of therapy- what does impact outcome significantly is the quality of the relationship that you form with the therapist.

Finding A Therapist on the Internet:

The internet can be a good resource for locating a therapist- but it can also be like finding a needle in a haystack-of-slick-websites. It’s easy to get LOTS of names, but not necessarily easier to find your therapist. Good websites to use to find a therapist are: the paid Psychology Today listings, Open Path, The Walnut List, and the alumni listings of graduate programs you’ve heard good things about, or organizations that advocate for persons struggling with the issues you struggle with.

If you’ll be paying with insurance- start with your insurance’s website- their listings of in-network providers should be a good starting point.

Checking References

If you’d like, you can do some homework at this point checking references and checking online for reviews of the therapist on your list- but it should be noted that online reviews for therapists are notoriously unreliable for two reasons:

1. Good therapy agitates– Deep change isn’t possible without discomfort. One or two negative reviews online may say more about the reviewer’s conflict style than they do about  the actual therapist. (there’s also quite a bit of research on negative review bias- check out this write up on the topic from The New York Times.)

2. Professional ethics generally prevent therapists from being able to solicit reviews from clients. So while your favorite burger joint can say, “Hey, if you liked that burger leave a review! We’ll give you a coupon!” your therapist cannot.

Instead, log into your state’s Department of Health website and look up a therapist’s license. In most states, it’s easy to check the status of their license and whether disciplinary actions (usually a signal of ethics violations) has been taken against it.

Reading Between the Lines of Therapist Ads

The problem with popular online therapist directories is that they are, essentially, just paid advertisements. How can potential clients know how to separate well-written ads for terrible therapists from terrible ads by amazing therapists? There’s no good answer to that question, but there are new options. Increasingly, I refer folks to The Walnut List, which offers the added benefits of being able to see someone’s professional endorsements from other therapists.

3. Reach Out.

An illustrated doodle of a woman on the phone with a speech bubble that says um hi

Once you have some names, it’s time to reach out. Try not to get your mind set on working with a specific therapist based on recommendations or what you’ve found online- good therapists are often be booked solid. If the therapist is full and you are not in crisis, you can ask for a spot on a waiting list.

How to Contact a Therapist:

Historically, a phonecall to the office was the “right” way to make initial contact with a new therapist- but now it’s generally very okay to make initial contact and schedule the first session via email.

It's okay to email: doodle of an electronic envelope.


2 Sample Emails for contacting a therapist to set up your first appointment:
1. “Hi , My name is _, I got your name through and I noticed you work with ___. I’d like more information on scheduling an appointment for therapy. Are you currently accepting new clients? If so, I’d love to set up a meeting. I’m generally available. I can be reached at. Thanks”
2. “Hi , My name is _, I’m reaching out hoping to schedule a consult to see if we might be a good fit for working together on some issues I’m having with  __. I don’t know if you have sliding scale rates, but I’m currently (student/single mom/financially struggling/etc) and am trying to find therapy for under $__ per session. Please let me know if you are available for a meeting.”

Note: If you are struggling to find a therapist with openings, adding “if you are currently not accepting new clients, I’d really appreciate a referral to another therapist you know who might be.”

4. Make A List.

If you are anxious make a list of things to talk about and any questions you want to ask your therapist, like "Who are you?" or "How can you help me?"

Figuring out how to get a therapist and start therapy can be anxiety-provoking. Meeting new people is always a little scary, and people often feel especially vulnerable in the first few sessions. The therapist knows it’s scary and- trust me- thinks you are a strong and brave person just for reaching out and showing up.

If it helps, it is okay to come in with a list of questions or concerns. Your list can be a really good place to start. It’s also ok to show up without anything to talk about! Therapists often have a structure they follow for the first session or two- so know that you are NOT responsible for filling the space.

5. Do A Few Consults & Trust Your Gut.

If you aren't sure it's a great fit, try another therapist. Trust your gut!

When we are in crisis, it’s especially tempting to just jump in to work with the first therapist who sits with us- and that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it gets us stabilized to the point where we can make an informed choice to continue with the therapist or seek a better fit.

Hand-drawn doodle of a diary that says: "Dear diary, it just felt like a good fit."

Since we know that the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client is the best predictor of therapy having a good outcome (Source), it’s worth the time to meet with several potential therapists and see which “clicks” for you. Trust your gut on this one- it’s easy to overthink it, but after meeting with a few, ask yourself which therapist you WANT to see again, and which therapist you can imagine yourself opening up to.

6. Choose and Dive In.

Therapy is an investment, and once you’ve chosen a therapist you’ve made the first step towards the many rewards of time invested in caring for yourself via therapy.

If you are under 18, talk to a school counselor about therapist referrals.

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