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How to select the right mental health counselor for your family

April 27, 2018

What comes to mind when you think about going to counseling? Most of us think of what we’ve seen on television or movies. You may also think that counseling is only for people who are “crazy” or “need a lot of help.” The reality is that counseling is for everyone who needs additional help coping, and that could likely include each one of us at some point in our lives. Counseling can help with mild, day-to-day issues as well as deep-rooted traumas. The length of counseling and type of counselor will depend on your needs. This article will provide you with a guide to make sure you find the right counselor for yourself or a loved one. 

What type of counselor should you look for?

Without getting too technical, I’d like to address the differences in counseling types. The first one is general counseling. This is offered by counselors usually found at schools, employee assistance programs (EAP), and community agencies as well as religious organizations. Their primary function is to treat mild conditions that are usually short in duration. General counselors can be the first stop before needing to go to specialized counseling. 

Specialized counseling addresses very specific conditions, and the counselors should have additional trainings and/or certifications related to the condition. These additional trainings and certifications provide them with a wider set of tools to help you get better faster and more efficiently than a general counselor. Specialized counseling is usually offered by individuals in private practice or agencies who are known to treat these conditions. You don’t need a referral to go to a specialized counselor, and it might be best to go directly to one if you’re aware of what issues you or a loved one need help with such as sexual abuse, anxiety, substance abuse, eating issues, or couples counseling. Keep in mind that even under the specialized counseling umbrella, you still have to make sure the counselor is experienced in working with different populations that may apply to your situation such as children, members of the LGBTQ community, people on the autism spectrum, and those with religious preferences. 

Many people consider medications a form of treatment. Although it is true that there are many medications aimed to treat certain conditions such as depression and anxiety, many have to be taken long-term, and symptoms can actually worsen if discontinued or if the causes are not addressed. Also, keep in mind that any doctor can prescribe these medications, even if they are not trained in mental health issues. Medications help people function, but they do not address the cause of the condition. Therefore, any doctor who prescribes mental health medications should be referring patients to work in collaboration with a counselor. 

Narrow the options by asking the right questions 

One of the difficult aspects of selecting a counselor is the number of them out there. It can be so overwhelming because if you perform an internet search in your area you’re probably going to get dozens of names. However, doing your research can be crucial so you don’t end up spending time, effort, and money with someone who will not help you and may actually make matters worse. Many counselors offer a free consultation session or phone call, and you should use this opportunity to assess if it will be a good fit. Many people looking for a counselor make the mistake of staying with a counselor even when they’re not getting better. As a counselor, let me tell you that your emotional and mental health are too important to settle for just anyone, even if that person is “very nice.” 

When it comes to seeing a counselor, I always like to distinguish between feeling better and getting better. You can talk to anyone who is willing to listen and validate your experience, and that can make you feel better. However, counseling should be more about getting better so those feelings can actually last. Sometimes getting better means having to face some tough issues, which may not actually feel good at the moment but is a necessary part of the process. This is why you need a skilled counselor who will help you navigate these moments and will provide you with guidance and tools to use in and out of the sessions. 

Here are some questions to ask potential counselors to find the best fit for yourself or a loved one: 

  •  What is your experience in working with this issue? The potential counselor should be able to give you the following:
    • Number of months or years treating that specific condition.
    • Number of patients or percentage of patients that were treated by this counselor who presented with this condition.
    • The setting where the counselor worked and gained such experience (i.e. inpatient, in-home, private practice, internship).
  • What is the average number of sessions I could expect given your experience and my circumstances? Although this number can greatly vary among individuals, once the counselor gets an overview of your circumstances, the counselor should be able to give you an average time based on his or her experience and what other clients have found beneficial. Please keep in mind that counseling is an ongoing process and as new information comes up, it could impact the length of treatment. However, the counselor should always keep you informed and should make it a practice to review your progress on a consistent basis.
  • How flexible are you with your schedule? This question is related to the times and days of the week where the counselor can see you. You should also discuss the ability to re-schedule within the same week as well as “emergency” sessions and how those are handled. 
  • What options will I have between sessions? Getting better cannot and should not be contained within the time you spend with your counselor. Therefore, the counselor should be able to let you know if there are digital applications, exercises, or any other method they use to help solidify the gains from each session. In addition, you should discuss if you are able to contact the counselor in between sessions, how you would do it, and if there is a financial cost. 
  • How much do you charge per session? Many counselors do not accept insurance, and payments are out of pocket. However, these counselors usually offer sliding fee scales. Therefore, it is best to ask this up front what the counselor’s practices are in the event you’re no longer able to afford the fee.  
  • Can you tell me the name(s) of people you usually collaborate with in the treatment of this issue? Although many counselors, especially those specialized counselors are quite capable of addressing a wide variety of issues, there are times when you or your loved one might need to be referred for additional services. These referrals can include but are not limited to psychiatrists, behavioral specialists, occupational therapists, mentors, etc. A counselor who is not able to provide you with any names usually means that they are working in isolation, which is a big red flag because you might not get what you need to get better. 

    Although counselors belong to the same broad category, they are not all created equal. Therefore, if you or someone you know has had a bad experience, give another counselor a chance. 
 

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