Falling into a hole we’ll never get out of…Waking up in a mental ward and not knowing who we are…Losing it.
Indeed, there are times when seeking professional help is not only a good thing to do, but vital to survival:
If you are trapped in a violent relationship. Or you are having manic mood swings that threaten both marriage and financial well-being. Purging and binging. Serious depression. Suicidal thoughts. If any of these are occurring, run, do not walk to your nearest counselor’s office!
But there are those other times. When we are stressed to the max. When we don’t know how to make a serious life decision and our friends are sick of listening to us. When life is OK, but we know it could be better, and while we’re at it, what does life mean, anyhow.
It is those times I’d like to address in this post. How to pick a good counselor, for you, right now, in a non-emergency situation.
First, the bad news. Most counseling has moved into the range of expensive if you do not have insurance. If your resources are tapped out, look in the yellow pages for counselors who advertise a ‘sliding fee scale’ or check out the training lab at the local university.
Often students, working on their masters or doctoral degree participate in a practicum laboratory under the direct supervision of a licensed professional. It’s akin to getting a massage at the local Massage Therapy School. Your counselor-trainee will work overtime to be sure you are well cared for.
Next, the good news. If you do have insurance that provides mental health benefits or if you can afford a few sessions out of your own pocket, these will be the most rewarding hours you may ever have spent. Here are some tips to get the most out of your work with a therapist:
Go shopping first. There may be information that you can check out ahead of time. Many therapists now have their own website that lists hours, location of office, their particular orientation, and perhaps some writing they have done. In major metropolitan areas, you may also wish to check out the Psychology Today website for this same information.
Go in for a preliminary conference. One of the key elements that predicts successful therapy is the relationship between counselor and client. You need to be sure you are on the same page. Is this someone that you could trust?
Check out the physical environment: Is the waiting room inviting and friendly? What about reading materials?
Is there a ‘white noise’ filter? Many modern office buildings were not constructed with confidentiality in mind, so be sure that there is a radio playing softly, a water fountain, a white noise machine or all three present!
Ask the therapist what their orientation is, and if you don’t understand what they are saying, ask for clarification.
If you aren’t getting a good feeling about the situation after about half an hour, thank the therapist politely and check out. Go down the list and find another. This is your life we are talking about.
But if this is someone you think you can work with, move forward with these considerations:
Understand that the therapy session is confidential, but only to a point. If the therapist feels you represent potential harm to self or others, they are obligated to break confidentiality. Likewise, if they are subpoenaed, under oath they would have to release records.
With your permission, they also will pass on certain information to medical agencies. Typically this will include the times you come in for therapy and a general diagnosis of your condition. After you have met a minimum number of sessions, they may need to recontact your insurance company for further authorizations.
Know that the “Rules” of a therapy session are somewhat different from social conversation: Although you have an ‘hour’ with your counselor, this will only be 45-50 minutes. The balance of time they will be using to write up case notes on your chart and clearing their mind for the next client after you.
The therapist will keep the focus of the session on you. They may self-disclose briefly, but if you spend the entire time talking about their problems, find another therapist!
You usually see only one counselor at a time. The exceptions to this are if you are in couples counseling and need individual help for unrelated issues, or if you are in group therapy and want individual sessions as well. Otherwise it is a no-no to seeing two therapists at once.
You may find more silence in the session than you are comfortable with. This is on purpose! Counselors are trained to be quiet, so that you can process your thoughts and come to your own conclusions.
It’s OK to cry. That’s what the klennex box is for. It’s OK not to cry, too. It’s your session.
A good counselor will not tell you what to do, but rather explore possible options with you. This might be frustrating at first. But in the end, it is your decision and your life and you have to live with it.
Likewise, they can’t change anyone else. Especially someone who is not in the room! Not your mother, father, siblings, or lover. They just can’t, and neither can you. They will work to facilitate your change, but only you can actually do that yourself.
If you can schedule a quiet time alone immediately after the session, it will give you a chance to reflect on what has been said. Write in a journal, cry in the car, walk in the park. The work you do will be twice as effective if you can.
Remember that counseling is only one hour out of a very busy week. It is what you DO with what you have discovered in counseling that will aid your ability to change for the better!