Finding the right psychologist is a bit like app dating. You hope it’ll be a good match, but sometimes you’re left disappointed.
And when you’re dictating the essence of who you are to a stranger and paying them to help you, you expect some kind of connection, albeit professional.
In fact, research suggests that a strong relationship between a client and psychologist (known as the therapeutic alliance) is still one of the most important factors in determining the success of therapy.
Seeing a mental health professional is common practice in Australia — more than 2.4 million Aussies used a Medicare subsidised mental health service in 2016-2017.
That figure is even greater when you consider private practice visits, where the most recent records account for nearly 40,000 people (not including South Australia, Tasmania and the territories).
With such a large demand for mental health professionals, it’s an important match to get right.
We asked psychology experts for their tips on finding Dr Right.
How do I access a psychologist?
You could phone any psychology clinic and make an appointment. But in order to receive up to 10 subsidised sessions per calendar year under a mental health care plan, your first port of call is your GP.
Your GP will likely ask you to fill out a questionnaire to make an assessment as to whether psychology is right for you. If you qualify, they’ll write you a referral to see someone.
Psychologist Danielle McCarthy says under a mental health care plan, you can choose who to visit with your GP’s referral. You’re not obliged to see the person named on the letter.
It’s also worth checking with your employer, as some workplaces offer Employee Assistance Programs, which provide access to confidential support and counselling to employees and their immediate family.
Those of us living in areas where access to healthcare is less handy are likely eligible for Medicare-funded telehealth services, which are specialist video consultations under Medicare.
(It’s worth noting, obtaining a mental health care plan can interfere with your ability to secure personal insurance.)
How do I find ‘the one’?
“Psychology is an investment in your mental health. And like with any investment, it’s good to know where your money is going and who it is you’re trusting it with,” says relationship psychologist Megan Tuohey.
Questions worth asking yourself are: Why am I looking to see a psychologist? Am I feeling anxious? Depressed? Angry? Does it concern my relationship(s)?
If you don’t know, that’s OK. But identifying the underlying issue can help narrow the search for psychologists who specialise in one area.
Googling “best psychologist for anger”, for example, will generate results. Or going with a recommendation from a friend or family member can help.
Alternatively, services like the Australian Psychological Society’s Find a Psychologist tool allows you to search for a practitioner based on their specialties and location.
Australian Psychological Society president and clinical psychologist Roslyn Knight says although uncommon, expressing a preference for a practitioner who is male or female, young or old, gay or straight, ethnically diverse or otherwise, is perfectly acceptable.
“As trained professionals, we may not think that it makes a difference in the way we practice, but our priority is the person sitting on the other side. So whatever will assure their comfort prior to walking through the door is perfectly acceptable,” Ms Knight says.
Most psychologists we spoke to recommended arranging a time for an over-the-phone interview to get a sense for who they are.
Ms Knight says to ask about professional experience, methods and relevant competencies to handle the sort of issues you’re presenting.
How do I know if it’s right?
Dr McCarthy says feeling comfortable, understood and receiving feedback that makes you feel like you’re on the right track are all signs indicating you’re a good fit.
“At the end of the day, do you like them? Can they relate to you? Do you get along?” she says.
After the first session, Dr McCarthy says your psychologist should have outlined a clear treatment plan and be asking you about your goals, what you want to achieve, and implementing strategies as to how you’re going to achieve them.
If you feel like you’re not getting anything out of the sessions, Ms Knight says it’s important to express that to your therapist.
“Feedback is crucial and can assist [your psychologist to] adjust their approach in helping you,” Ms Knight says.
Should I go on a second date?
Tapping into how the session made you feel will help you decide whether you’ve found a beneficial match.
Ms Knight says generally, after the first few sessions you should feel therapeutically relieved, hopeful and empowered that you can make a change.
However, we’re all different and improvement might take a little longer for some.
Dr McCarthy says actioning the strategies you’ve learnt is when you should expect to see change.
“Accept that you’re an active participant in the therapy process, and that the little things you do every day in between sessions is what really matters,” she says.