As seen in the Oxford Eagle "Good Health" special section March 2021
It goes without saying that 2020 was a heavy year for most people. If you have decided to get some support for your mental wellness you may be questioning where to even start. The good news is that due to some changes made during the pandemic, professional help is more accessible than ever. Many therapists offer online scheduling and tele-health sessions (online video sessions) for convenience and to accommodate client needs.
As with most professions, there are some basic terms that may be helpful to understand as you begin your search. For the purposes of this article, the terms therapist and counselor are used interchangeably as both are trained with a master’s degree or higher in similar curriculum to provide mental health support.
Before you schedule your appointment, it is important to find a counselor that you feel comfortable with. A strong therapeutic relationship is the top factor in predicting treatment success. Asking family, friends, doctors, or trusted co-workers for referrals can be a great way to learn firsthand about providers in your area. There may also be characteristics such as location, gender, age, and ethnicity that you feel more drawn to in a therapist which help narrow down your search. By knowing a few names and preferred characteristics you can begin a web search. The more specific you are in your search the better. For instance, it may be important to you to find a therapist who specializes in your area of concern or someone who uses a specific therapy technique. You probably don’t know which therapy technique is best for you - and that’s okay. If that is the case, then focus on your concerns and goals when looking for a therapist match. Online directories, like psychologytoday.com or therapyden.com, allow you to filter your search based on several criteria.
Therapist websites also provide you with additional information like their specialty, availability, fees, or insurances accepted. Some therapists have professional social media accounts you can explore to get a feel for their personality, and many therapists offer a short consultation to address any questions you may have before scheduling your first appointment. Taking these steps will help you feel more confident in choosing your therapist.
Once you schedule your first appointment, be prepared to complete initial paperwork. Some counselors have virtual paperwork to complete before your first appointment while others ask that you complete this paperwork in person. You may find it is similar to paperwork at a doctor’s office including confidentiality and HIPPA information. It is helpful to gather needed documents like identification, medical information, emergency contact info, and insurance information (if applicable) to complete the paperwork.
Your first therapy session can be a messy experience for you emotionally. You will likely bring some difficult topics to the surface, and this can be emotionally overwhelming. Remember that your therapist’s office is a safe place to explore any thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that you are experiencing. It is a good idea to plan some buffer time immediately following your session before jumping back into work, school, or social events until you get a feel for how you process sessions. Because of the emotional toll of a first session, it may take a few sessions to decide if you and your therapist are a good fit. Remember that finding a therapist that you connect with is one of the most important pieces to your progress so try out a new therapist if you do not feel supported and understood.
How long you spend working with a therapist is unique to you. Typically sessions are booked weekly or bi-weekly, and you may stay in therapy for several months or even years if you continue to benefit from the process. After working with your therapist you may notice your progress by small shifts toward a more positive mindset or catching yourself in an old thought process and having the skills to redirect to a more helpful one. It is important to discuss your goals and progress with your counselor so they know what’s working for you.
In the same way that we tend to our physical wellness by going to a doctor, a gym, or changing habits, we must focus on our mental wellness. If you direct energy toward your mental health, you will likely see benefits in other areas of your life. Reaching out can be intimidating, but hopefully these tips help ease the process. The sooner you get support the sooner you start living a life that aligns with your values and priorities.
Sarah Jay Gray is a counselor in Oxford. Reach out at 662-260-6543 and thriveoxford.com or follow along on Instagram @sarahjaygray_counselor.