Choosing a Therapist

by Lynn Klammer

Early in my career, a concerned 22-year-old mother named Karen approached me and asked if her daughter’s imaginary friend was an early sign of “insanity.” There was a history of mental illness in the family, and she was extremely distressed by her daughter’s sudden insistence that an extra place be set at the dinner table for her “friend.”

As an individual new to the field of psychology at that time, I relied on my training rather than experience in answering her. As this wide-eyed young mother listened, I embarked on a technical mini-dissertation as to the basis for such childhood behavior according to Freudian and Ericksonian theory.

When I had finally finished what I thought was a brilliant and thorough answer to her question, there was a brief pause after which Karen said, “OK, but what do you think?”

It was then I realized that patients usually don’t want to hear all the theories. Patients want an answer and they are blindly trusting of the professional from whom they seek their answer. In Karen’s case, I reassured her that imaginary friends are not that unusual during childhood and that her daughter would inevitably outgrow her imaginary friend. The mother then left looking relaxed and content, apparently feeling that she had nothing to worry about.

In recent years patients have become more cautious of the MD they choose, often getting a second and third opinion on matters of surgery or diagnosis of serious illness. Even prospective parents shop around for the best hospital in which to have their baby. Mental health, however, remains a field where patients are far too trusting.

It is not unusual to see a television talk show or read a news article highlighting the latest incidence of patient abuse by someone in the mental health field. Based on my own experience, it is easy to see how so many unwitting patients can find themselves in such a position. As a psychologist with many years of experience, I have rarely been asked my credentials, licensure, or what theories I ascribe to in treating a patient. People place themselves and/or their loved ones under my care without knowing anything at all about myself or my training. If patients would invest the same amount of time and research into choosing a therapist as they do purchasing a pair of athletic shoes, they would greatly reduce their risk of abuse.

In today’s world, it’s especially difficult for the Christian parent to choose a competent professional who shares their ethical standards and moral values. We may feel uncomfortable sharing our religious beliefs with a therapist and asking about his in an initial contact, but communication really is the key to a successful therapeutic relationship. A few simple questions can make an informed choice possible:

  • Ask the therapist for his license number and call the department of licensing to check that it’s still valid (licensing regulations vary from state to state).
  • If you know former patients or other professionals in related fields, ask their opinion of the psychologist you’re considering.
  • Ask the psychologist what his professional beliefs regarding therapy are, how he views the patient/therapist relationship, what his ethical standards are, and how much experience he has in his field. A responsible, competent professional will not be offended by such questions. If the therapist does appear offended by or uncomfortable with your questions, this should be your first cue to seek out another professional.

Knowing the answers to the above questions will help to ensure that you receive therapy that is appropriate to your situation and inclusive of your spiritual needs.