Not just any Tom, Dick, or Harriet

Taking a deep breath, steadying yourself and embarking on the journey of therapy begins even prior to stepping through your therapist’s front door. In this day and age, one typically turns to Google to ask and subsequently sifts through an ocean of psychological jargon, self-diagnostic symptom checklists, as well as alphabet soup (who or what is a MAPS?) before surrendering to confusion and exhaustion.

That would be my uncertainty and daze were I tackling the task of finding a specialist from an unfamiliar field. Alphabets look important yet seem meaningless; for the longest time, I would watch them roll with movie credits and think, what’s an A.S.C., yet not be eager enough to find out. My lazy curiosity preceded the birth of the www.

Today’s modern consumer of mental health, however, can be well-informed as part and parcel of his or her therapeutic care. It is about ensuring that one’s mental health and safety is being entrusted into the hands of a credible, reliable, qualified professional. It is about the physical and mental energy, time and emotional commitment, in addition to financial resources that you, the client, are going to invest into the process of caring for your psychological wellbeing.

 
Couchology, Seoul
 

ACADEMICS

Start your search by checking your potential therapist’s academic background.

Growing interest in psychology has given rise to a range of certifications and job titles that deviate from the conventional occupation of “psychotherapist.” Certain credentials may seem stellar at first glance, but investigate a little bit more if you need to. Legitimate academic institutes will be transparent about the prospects and limitations for a holder of that paper. For instance, this course summary regarding a Masters of Science in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology makes it clear that the course serves as a pre-training academic requirement for further rigorous academic training in the subject, and that its graduates are qualified to be psychology assistants, not psychologists. A Masters of Mental Health: Psychological Therapies could sound excitingly persuasive to an earnest seeker of therapy who may walk away anticipating that the practitioner is thus skilled in multiple forms of psychological therapies; note that the course’s web information explicitly states, “This MSc does not lead to clinical accreditation.”

An ethical practitioner will recognise the limitations of his or her training and experience. An ex-supervisee of mine had a Masters, but not one that led to licensure, and hats off to her, she later enrolled in another Masters course that would eventually allow her to register as a qualified counsellor.

Next, differentiate higher education from certifications. A licensed therapist is not the same thing as a therapist who has a certificate in cognitive-behavioural therapy. Your practitioner may have both, while someone with a certificate in a form of therapy and no relevant registration with a governing body is unlikely to be career-ready as a qualified therapist.

LICENSE & REGISTRATION

Once you have clarified the academic credentials, review the licenses and registrations listed. While criteria varies from region to region (e.g., North America versus the UK versus Australia), in general, a qualified therapist must be credentialed for clinical practice. This usually translates into having a relevant license or registration. There are multiple reasons behind this and foremost is public safety. Regulatory agencies hold their members to a code of ethics and gold standard professional practices. Hence, as a consumer, you can feel more secure knowing that your licensed or registered therapist passed the examination process of that regulatory authority.

Key professional associations often have public access directories. If you were searching for a UK chartered psychologist, the British Psychological Society will tell you “to check on the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) register to check that a practitioner is registered before deciding to use their services.” My details can be verified through the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency that supports the regulation of 15 health professions in Australia, including psychology.

Professional regulatory bodies also promote and mandate continuing education. Your credentialed therapist will have to pursue regular professional development opportunities to keep his/her clinical knowledge up-to-date and effective. Understand that your therapist may be unavailable once in a while to attend these events. I have had to rearrange appointments due to this and my clients have been kind and curious about how my conferences and workshops went.

Finally, be aware that a professional membership does not equate to having a license/registration. One may be a member of a professional body and not be licensed. Note these distinctions when you review the credentials of your shortlist. As a discerning consumer, ascertain the academic degrees and practitioner qualifications of your shortlisted therapists. Google or straightforwardly ask what the postnominals after your therapist’s name mean.

REPRESENTATION

You can get a good sense of your potential therapist by perusing the business practice’s website and the practitioner’s profile. With a solid understanding of the relevance of an accredited academic background and relevant professional affiliations, you can now discern the reliability of the message. Content with a straightforward description of relevant training and preferred treatment modality will win with its clarity over pseudo-inspirational language. In fact, regulatory guidelines in Australia prohibit both use of misleading claims about the service as well as client (patient) testimonials on a practice’s business website. Furthermore, wording such as “This therapist specialises in…” is deemed potentially misleading about the degree of skill or expertise a practitioner may have.

Another warning sign is if a practitioner appears to have shaky adherence to fundamental ethical elements like privacy issues. Maintaining a client’s confidentiality and ensuring the client knows this is of supreme importance establishes both a safe space to support intimate disclosure as well as the basis of a collaborative therapeutic relationship between client and therapist. If your therapist proposes a session at a cafe, you have a right to ask how he or she is going to protect your client confidentiality in a public space.

Last but not least, consult online resources with suggestions on how to find a good-fit therapist for you, such as Grohol (2019). The American Psychological Association offers these prompts to ask when whittling down your shortlist:

  • Are you a licensed psychologist? How many years have you been practising psychology?

  • I have been feeling (anxious, depressed, etc.) and I am having problems (with my job, my marriage, sleeping, etc.). What experience do you have helping people with these types of problems?

  • What are your areas of expertise - for example, working with children?

  • What kinds of treatments do you use, and have they been proven effective for dealing with my kind of problem or issue?

  • What are your fees? (Fees are usually based on a 45-minute to 50-minute session.)

  • What types of insurance do you accept? Will you accept direct billing to or payment from my insurance company?

 
Choosing a good therapist
 

As baffling as postnominals, licenses and registration bodies may seem, these measures are in place to serve public interest, that is, your interest, on top of promoting mental health advocacy and reducing barriers to access for the community. Be a savvy consumer of mental healthcare and safeguard yourself against unprofessional practices to ensure that you get the best investment out of your time in therapy.

PS: While it might be the latest K-pop music group name one day, at the moment MAPS simply stands for Member of the Australian Psychological Society.