How to choose a therapist, according to a therapist

Filter by LGBT+, black, female… because therapy is more personal than dating.

Tired Woman

Therapy is more personal than dating. So before you dive in, you may want to find a good fit. Shop around before committing. We have Tinder for dating. But how should one go about choosing a therapist? Here are some things to consider when you choose your therapist, according to a therapist.

Related: Therapy is a Privilege, So Cape Town Clinic Offers R50 Counselling Sessions

Disclaimer: The ideal therapist for many is simply an affordable one. We’ll be covering this issue in the follow-up article. So stay tuned.


Who is your ideal therapist?

You will be discussing uncomfortable things. And maybe you’re not comfortable doing this with the old cis-het white man recommended to you by your aunt. Let’s say, for example, you want a female psychologist in Bryanston, Jo’burg, who specialises in depression and can treat you in seTswana.

You can search for her. This filtering system makes it possible to be pretty damn specific about who you want. Obviously, not every combination will yield results. But the function can help you narrow things down and give you some agency.

There are many different kinds of therapy. How do you find your best fit? This is, after all, a deeply personal process. Therapy Route offers a free therapist directory, and this is a start.

Special filters like ‘identity’ allow you to specify: black, LGBT+, non-binary or female. The language filtering function includes isiZulu, Russian and sign language. Very f*cking cool, and so necessary. Sometimes the Internet does so damn right by us.


Consider your comfort priorities

Some people need a therapist who isn’t far away. Others need a therapist who focuses on childhood abuse. You might feel more comfortable with a queer therapist. Everyone’s comfort priority is different.

Maybe you want a non-binary counsellor who focuses on addiction, but you don’t care about location. Maybe you want an LGBT+ family therapist who focuses on abuse. You have options.

Therapists from all around the world list their services. Some of them consult via Skype, and some of them are around the corner from you. Here are a few ways you can break it down:


Choosing according to relatability, gender, identity or language

Gender identity and ethnicity can be important in this process for one main reason: a safe space.

‘Issues of race, class, culture, sexuality and gender are incredibly important when it comes to finding a therapist,’ says mental-health professional Vincenzo Sinisi.

For women, femmes, queers and people of colour, special filters like ‘identity’ (for example, black, LGBT+, non-binary, female, etc) can mean agency and safety. Let’s take the current femicide rates in SA as an example. You need to feel safe with your therapist. And you may not jump at the opportunity to reveal your most vulnerable self to a man you do not know. And that’s okay.

Related: How Many Femicides Will it Take? A Champion Boxer, A First-Year Student, 3 000 Others

Having a therapist who can relate to your culture and background can save you the time and emotional labour of explaining things particular to your culture. You may also feel more comfortable and understood. It can help if you see your therapist as an ally:

‘A therapist identifying as non-binary or LGBT+ is usually a clear indication that they are at least allies and that they very possibly have a special interest in working with issues surrounding sexuality and gender,’ says Sinisi.

Related: Seeking Therapy While Black

Unfortunately, finding black and/or queer therapists in SA can be a challenge. And that’s where this can be helpful:

But differences can also be an advantage, for some patients. We can sometimes feel just as judged by our own people, particularly if familiarity has a triggering component (too close to home). So, while there’s no one way to go about this, you may have a sense of what works for you.

‘The matter isn’t quite as clear-cut as: “Clients do better with therapists who share their identity, culture, race, language,”‘ says Sinisi.

As for language, this speaks to access, not just preference and comfort. It’s more than relatability. Everyone should have the access to be treated in their home language. But, unfortunately, it’s not the case. So here’s what does exist: you may be able to receive therapy in your language of choice,  and there are even sign-language therapists that work from the US or Australia who can treat you via Skype.

‘Having to translate your thoughts into another language (assuming you can) adds to the strain of a therapeutic encounter. And let’s be honest, these encounters are difficult enough as it is. And language often hints at culture,’ explains Sinisi.

‘Professionally speaking,’ says Sinisi, ‘this is not to say that another properly qualified therapist with a different identity or cultural background wouldn’t be able to help or understand, only that empowering the public in this way improves the chances of someone reaching out in the first place.’

In other words, representation – as always – is everything.


Choosing by specialisation or issue

You can find someone who focuses on the exact area you need help in, and you can tailor the search to your problem area. Set the focus to your addiction, social anxiety, sexual trauma, rage, grief – whatever it may be:

Furthermore, there are different client groups. Some therapies focus on adults, some on children, and there’s also family therapy and couple’s therapy.

And, of course, there are different kinds of therapists. For example, psychiatrists can prescribe medication while psychologists focus on therapy. Counsellors are often more affordable and accessible – and available at community clinics.


How To Know If You Even Need Therapy

Some people consider themselves too busy for therapy. Some people (who may need therapy) think they’re too smart for therapy or too enlightened for therapy. Sceptics exist. You might be wondering: do I even need therapy?. That is a valid question, and one many people ask themselves all the time. So how do you know?

‘Everybody, and I mean everybody, experiences challenges during their lives or areas of personal struggle that could benefit from working with a therapist,’ says Sinisi.

Basically, the world would be a better place if everyone had a therapist on call. But what if you’re not mentally ill? What if you’re one of those blessed souls who doesn’t suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, bipolar disorder (the list goes on)?

Sinisi continues: ‘That’s not to say that we should all be in therapy all the time, but I do want to stress that working with a therapist is often meaningful and helpful even if you aren’t mentally ill.’

How so? Well, if you’re facing a crisis or a major personal issue (which we all do), therapy can be very helpful. The more severe the problem (internal or external), the deeper the need for therapy may be.

If only the answer was this simple: only you know if you need therapy. This may be true for some people, but not for everyone. You may have no idea whether or not your need therapy. So, here’s a thought, if you’re wondering and you’re not sure, go and find out.

Just like you’d go to the doctor for a physical checkup, do the same for your mind.

We’ve been socialised into taking care of our physical health. Even though most of us hate going to the doctor, we do it because we’ve been taught to do it. Let’s pay our mental health the same respect.


Here’s the Tea:

You don’t have to like your therapist, or consider them cool. They don’t have to be someone you’d hang out with. But you do have to trust them. Or, at the very least, see the potential for trust, acceptance and progress.

You can now make the choice from the solace of your own bed, phone in hand (remember this when you cannot get out of bed).

And it doesn’t really matter how you get there – whether you’ve scrolled the Internet in your pyjamas for hours, whether you’ve asked people you know for suggestions, or asked your doctor or social media for recommendations.

Not so long ago, your GP would simply recommend a therapist if they thought it necessary. Doctor’s recommendations still happen all the time, BTW, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A good doctor will give you an appropriate recommendation.

But maybe your doctor has no idea where you’re at. And maybe your mental state is not something you share on Instagram or bring up with your family.

It’s alright. Times have changed. The Internet was born. And unlike Tinder, you can now (anonymously) scroll through the options until you find a therapist you’re comfortable with meeting. Possibly even while you’re unable to rip your limbs from a mattress, with your phone in your palm, clicking.

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