The following guest post is shared with permission from the author, the wonderful Matt Glover from MGA Counselling Services. Matt wrote this following a discussion I had with him and two other professionals I admire, Sarah McMahon from BodyMatters and Jacqui Manning, The Friendly Psychologist. Sarah has also put together an excellent resource on how to select a therapist for eating disorders which may be viewed here.
Recently I was having a discussion with Dannielle Miller from Enlighten Education about what to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist. In Australia, we still live in a culture that places some stigma on seeing a mental health professional, and so we are hesitant to ‘ask around’ like we do when looking for a plumber or dentist. If you’re wrestling with a mental health issues, a relationship problem, a personal issue, or just feel plain stuck, make sure you check the following before booking a session with a counsellor or psychologist.
1. Check the qualifications. While Psychology and Social Work are regulated industries, Counselling is not. Anybody can set themselves up as a counsellor and charge a premium without even a single hour of training. Online certificates and diploma’s abound in counselling, but these are little better than nothing at all. Many of them do not require any sort of supervised placement and barely scratch the surface of best practice when it comes to the different models of therapy. For counsellors, I would suggest sticking with those that have a Bachelor degree or above, from a reputable university. When you ring to make a booking, ask where the therapist did their training.
2. Check the accreditation. Make sure the counsellor you see is accredited at more than student level with one of the professional bodies. The professional bodies maintain a code of ethics for the industry and ensure that individual therapists are engaged in ongoing professional development and supervision. As a counsellor, I’m accredited through the Australian Counselling Association, but there are equivalent associations for Psychologists and Social Workers.
3. Check the experience. Regardless of your heart for helping people, it takes a while to become really proficient in the helping industries. I say to aspiring counsellors to try and get work with a larger agency before thinking about private work or opening your own practice. I worked for 14 years for other organisations before opening MGA. When you ring a therapist, ask them how long they’ve been practicing. If they say “two weeks”, wish them well for their career, hang up, and call the next person on your list.
4. Check the specialty. Most of us have a field that we specialize in, based on our own interests and history. In my practice, we focus on sexuality, spirituality, and mental health, with individual therapists at MGA having more focused areas like relationships, eating disorders and the like. If you’re after some help with depression, for instance, make sure your therapist has experience working in that area. Associated with this point is the model of therapy. There’s lots of different ‘therapies’ – some will suit you and others won’t. CBT has been popular in the past but seems to be going out of fashion in recent years. Gestalt is still popular, as is person centered therapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the model we use at MGA, but each client is treated according to their needs, not pushed through a conveyor belt.
5. Check the “fit.” If you find you don’t really click with your therapist, find somebody else. I don’t have any research to back this up at all, but my feeling is that at least 50% of a good outcome in counselling depends on how well you get along with your counsellor. If you have a counsellor that is rude, irritating, talks about themselves all the time, seems uninterested, hurries you along, doesn’t listen or even smells funny, then you won’t get the most out of your time together. You may even miss some important, helpful suggestions because you really just don’t like them very much. Sometimes a good outcome does take time, but you want to take that journey with somebody who you connect with well.
6. Check the reputation. This is a little harder to do, but ask around to see what sort of reputation a therapist has. Personal recommendations are not a rock solid guarantee (you have to get along well with them remember) but it’s nice to know that there is some good reports about the person you are seeing.
7. Check the responsibility. By this I mean, check that you have responsibility for where the sessions go and what it is you cover. I do a lot of work with the transgender community and I’ve lost count how many times clients say to me that their previous counsellor talked about nothing but their gender transition, despite the client wanting to see them for an entirely different reason. (Eg, bullying at work) In sessions, make sure you talk about what YOU want to talk about. As things unfold, you may uncover other things that you need to work on – a skilled therapist will help you do this. But if your counsellor insists on making you talk about things that seem irrelevant and they won’t give you a reason why, think about whether you should continue with them.
8. Check the practical stuff. Ask how long the sessions are, what the fees are, whether it has disability access, whether it is close to public transport, is there parking available, what are the opening hours and so on. Whatever practical things are important to you, ask about them. Also check to see if your therapist has any long holidays planned – sometimes a break in momentum can set you back, so if they’re going to be away for six months, ask for somebody else.
Jacqui offered a few final thoughts in addition to these I thought worth sharing here too: “Also, I’d say that if the work feels confronting, that’s OK, therapy is meant to make shifts and sometimes these can feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t stay that way for long. The therapist should be skilled at going at your pace, but if they’re not, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them to slow down. And if you don’t click with one therapist? Don’t give up on the process. It’s like finding a good hairdresser, it can take time to find the right person to trust, but you don’t stop getting your hair done if you have had one bad haircut.”