Deciding to go to therapy is a significant step towards healing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not intimidating. The process to try and find a helpful, suitable therapist involves a few different steps, and in order to attain the best care, it’s important to have a comprehensive understanding of them all.

That’s why we turned to Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health, a nationwide network of mental health providers for those seeking treatment. Ahead, she breaks down all you need to know about finding a supportive therapist you trust.

Recognize the signs that it might be time for therapy

Before you even begin looking for a therapist, you might be wondering if it’s the right moment to go. “If that question is crossing your mind, schedule an appointment,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn.

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Seeking therapy can be worthwhile if you find it difficult to concentrate or focus on everyday tasks, or if you’re unable to enjoy the things you used to. Suffering schoolwork, friendships, or relationships are “some big signs [that] it's maybe time to get some help,” she adds.

Talk to your parents or family members

Confiding in your parents or guardians about your mental health struggles can be extremely beneficial, especially if you are aware that they’re already visiting a clinician themselves, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. Regardless, opening up this dialogue allows you to express what kind of resources you need. Your family can help you navigate logistics like insurance, and make sure that you’re accessing a therapist in your family’s network.

“If you know a parent or caretaker is seeing a therapist, don't be shy to reach out to them for help,” she says. “Normalize that this is something you need help for, like cutting your finger or spraining your ankle.”

Speak to a trusted adult

If you don’t feel comfortable or aren’t in the position to open up to your immediate family, seek out a trusted adult like a teacher or your doctor. “It may be an aunt, a neighbor, or your mom's best friend who you grew up with,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “People are so aware and want to be helpful, so don't be shy and don't be embarrassed.”

She points out that another valuable resource is your school’s counselor. These individuals are there for support and could be someone to turn to.

“The best is early intervention,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “It is so helpful.”

Know your options

Therapy isn’t as easily accessible as it should be, and it can often be very expensive. For that reason, there are a number of lower-cost alternatives to consider.

“If you are a student, there is often free counseling available through your school both at the K-12 level and college/university level,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. These counseling centers are dedicated to supporting students’ emotional well-being, and often offer short-term therapy.

She also recommends the Mental Health Coalition, which has a resource database for mental health struggles, including addiction, anxiety and stress, and depression. “They have a comprehensive library that allows you to browse various resources, support groups, and helplines depending on your specific needs,” she adds.

Additionally, there are community mental health centers — government-funded facilities that offer services at a lower cost — online support groups, and mental health apps for coping skills, stress relief, PTSD, and more. You could also look into psychology training clinics, where doctoral students provide either free or relatively inexpensive sessions under the supervision of a licensed therapist.

Do your research

When searching for a therapist, make sure you identify their specialty and expertise. This is one of the best ways of narrowing down who is right for you. Considering factors such as the age, gender, race, ethnicity, or even the hometown of a therapist is equally important.

“I encourage teens to read some people's bios. Usually they talk about what issues they focus on and sometimes even a little bit about themselves without being too revealing,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “Maybe something in their bio resonated with you — I think people like to go to [therapists] that remind them of themselves.”

Health insurance companies typically maintain an online catalog of in-network providers to look through, but other reputable sources to reference are Psychology Today, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Mental Health Coalition.

Also, think about whether you prefer virtual or in-person appointments. Telehealth sessions skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic — and a survey from the American Psychological Association indicated that 93 percent of psychologists intend to continue offering teletherapy as an option post-pandemic. So, if you prefer one method strongly over the other, make sure to look for that in the therapist’s bio or on their website.

Give yourself two to three sessions

Allow yourself the time to figure out whether or not a therapist is suited to your needs. That typically can’t be done in one session, so Dr. Patel-Dunn recommends attending at least two to three before making a decision.

“Finding a professional and talking to them can be very anxiety provoking,” she says. “You may be more anxious through that first visit — sometimes people feel a little bit worse before they feel better.”

Don’t be afraid to leave a therapist if they’re not the right fit

If you’ve given the therapist those two to three sessions and still don’t feel comfortable, it is entirely OK to leave. This could feel incredibly awkward to do — especially if you are conflict-avoidant — but Dr. Patel-Dunn promises that therapists are completely understanding in these situations.

“Please know that mental health clinicians are here to help. Therapy is not about us, it’s about you,” she says. “If you don't feel like you’d be able to open up or be honest, or if you're avoiding appointments, take that to mean this isn't the right fit.”

Explain to the clinician how you feel, and ask if they have referrals for someone else. Or, just simply thank them for their time and help. “There’s no reason you have to justify,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn. “But keeping it simple and living in your truth is such a helpful thing in life.”

She does mention, however, that sometimes it’s the topic of discussion that makes people feel uncomfortable, not the therapist: “They may be the right fit but because it can be anxiety provoking, there's different layers — so I encourage you to talk about [why you’re uncomfortable]. Then sometimes, it’s just not the right fit and that's OK.”

Be open to the process

It might take a while before you find a match, but aim to be as engaged as possible throughout the process. It’s easier said than done, but try to work through the discouragement of not immediately finding a suitable therapist. During sessions, ask questions — especially about any recommended medication — and discuss what you’d like to achieve in therapy. This is great for gaining a sense of how a therapist conducts sessions, and how they help others with similar goals as yours. And once you discover a successful match, try to keep a regular cadence of appointments every week or every other week.

“Don't just have one session and think you're cured,” Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “Recognize that it may take several weeks to resolve an issue that you may be having."

Additionally, Dr. Patel-Dunn stresses the importance of getting enough sleep, going outside for fresh air, exercising, and drinking lots of water — these are all integral in maintaining a healthy mindset.

“Don't forget your basics if you’re not feeling right,” she says. “But once again, if anyone is concerned, get an appointment. Don’t be shy to reach out.”

All in all, everyone’s therapy experience is different. But hopefully, with a few suggestions to get you started, the journey to healing won’t appear so daunting.

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Leah Campano
Associate Editor

Leah Campano is an Associate Editor at Seventeen, where she covers pop culture, entertainment news, health, and politics. On the weekends, you can probably find her watching marathons of vintage Real Housewives episodes or searching for New York City’s best almond croissants.