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Kevlar for the Mind: Do research, take ‘test drive' when choosing a therapist

Nov. 18, 2012 - 02:18PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2012 - 02:18PM  |  
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Q. After months of encouragement from my squad leader, I've decided to get help for my depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Are there certain things I need to look for in choosing a therapist?

A. Choosing a good therapist is not unlike choosing a new car. When you do your research, shop around and maybe even take a few test drives; you will increase your chances of making a good choice.

First and foremost, make sure the person has a current and valid state license to practice. Each state has specific licensing standards for psychologists, clinical social workers and professional counselors.

Be aware, however, that some titles are not regulated. The terms "psychotherapist" and "counselor," for example, are general terms used by some professionals who do not hold a valid license or have not met rigorous educational standards.

It's important to find a therapist whom you like. This may sound like a no-brainer, but some people stay with a therapist even when the relationship isn't a good fit.

Therapy is meant to be difficult, and you will not always agree with your therapist. But if you find yourself dreading your appointments because you feel your therapist is disinterested, condescending or judgmental, it's time to move on.

The therapist's theoretical orientation is also important. There are hundreds of theories of psychotherapy; choosing the one that best fits your style and situation can be a challenge.

In general, the majority of therapists practice cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic or interpersonal styles of therapy. These approaches have the most scientific support for their use.

Unfortunately, there are countless variations to these. And many of them are based purely on a single therapist's self-proclaimed effectiveness. If you do an Internet search and your therapist's style is associated with only one or a few individuals, be wary.

Look for a therapist who takes your insurance. Therapy can be expensive, and charges exceeding $100 an hour are not uncommon. This shouldn't be an issue because most established mental health therapists participate with numerous insurance plans.

However, if a therapist doesn't accept your insurance, that doesn't mean he's not good at what he does. But all else being equal, it doesn't make sense to pay sticker price.

If you don't have insurance, find a therapist who is willing to work with you on what's called a "sliding fee scale." This allows the therapist to potentially charge you a reduced rate based on your income.

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of "Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment." Email Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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