I was reading the story of Megan Rondini (http://bzfd.it/2tcSCYf) and was struck by how she was failed by the mental health professionals that should have helped her. Setting aside the actions of the police and the university, it seems to me that the tragic outcome of her story could have been avoided if she had encountered a therapist who was qualified to deal with her issues.
I have worked with many people who have had bad experiences with therapy. Sometimes this is due to the expectations of the client or their level of willingness to be honest and do the necessary work, but I have heard some very disturbing experiences related to actions of the therapists. Let’s be honest, in any field, you are going to find some some people who are very good, some that are truly horrible, and a lot that are somewhere in the middle.
So how do you go about finding a good therapist? I wish there was a simple answer to this, but to be honest, it may be a process. A referral from someone you know and trust who has dealt with similar issues would be ideal, but this may not be possible or practical to find. Most people will likely find themselves looking online which is far from an ideal way to be looking for someone to deal with things so personal.
If you don’t have a recommendation from someone, or even if you do, finding a therapist can be a process. You may need to interview, and that is an appropriate word, several therapists before finding the one that is right for you. You can narrow down the list by searching for therapists who have experience in the specific issue that you are struggling with. Web sites and blogs (like this one) can give you some idea of personality of the counselor and the practice, but it is ultimately going to come down to meeting the person and see if it feels like a good fit.
A first therapy session is really an interview, for both the client and the therapist. The client needs to feel that the therapist is someone they can talk to and is competent to deal with their issues. The therapist needs to feel that the issues the client is seeking help with are within their expertise and that they feel like they can develop a rapport with the client. If either party does not feel comfortable with these things, the process should not go forward.
One of the central tenants of therapy is what is known as Unconditional Positive Regard. This means that the therapist needs to be able to be supportive of the client no matter what they say, what they have done, or what has happened to them. I have heard of an alarming number of instance where this was not the case. If the therapist expresses shock or disapproval they are probably not qualified or experienced enough to deal with the issue. Even if what you share is truly horrible, it will not phase a therapist who is trained and experienced in that area. Remember, even a great therapist will not be qualified to deal with every issue, if you don’t feel comfortable, move on.
So what should you expect in a first counseling session? I would expect the therapist to share some of their clinical background and experiences. They should share enough for the client to develop confidence in the therapist’s ability to deal with their issues. One of the complaints I have heard the most is that that the therapist spent most of the session talking about themselves. While the therapist will likely talk more in the first session to begin to establish a relationship, the session should always feel like it is primarily about the client.
A good counselor is going to know that not everyone they meet is going to be a good fit and if they don’t, they are definitely someone to avoid. As a client, you should be comfortable with the idea that you may need to speak with several therapists before finding one that you feel is a good fit. If you get lucky and feel the first person you meet is a good fit, I wouldn’t be afraid to go with that person, at the same time, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t feel afraid to say so.
Jeff Harrolle, LPC
Thrive Counseling & Trauma Therapy