What to Look For in a Mental Health Professional

Laura Susanne Yochelson
Laura Susanne Yochelson

A long struggle with an eating disorder and psychosis has given me a lot of experience with different kinds of mental health professionals. It took me 15 years to find a therapist that worked for me; it’s important to never give up trying to find the right one. 

Based on my experience, health care professionals aren’t interchangeable. They’re people with strengths and weaknesses, just like the rest of us. Thanks to my family, I’ve had the opportunity to get access to help and resources. Because neither me nor my family knew what to look for, it would have been beneficial to ask questions before making any commitments to them. 

Here are five key takeaways for those of you seeking help or for anyone being encouraged to find help:

1) Does your mental health professional treat you as an individual or as one-size-fits-all?

An effective therapist will personalize treatment, respecting your unique emotional and psychological needs. You will know when you gain the respect of the person who is helping you. In my case, that respect unlocked years of resistance to treatment. One particular psychoanalyst from my past turned me against treatment, as I was urged not to leave for college.  I wasn’t open to treatment until I felt like what I had to say was listened to and taken seriously.

2) Does your mental health professional have a tool kit that fits your needs?  

A good therapist will always to create a safe space for you that allows you to express innermost thoughts and emotions without feeling judged. My therapist lets me set the agenda for each session. She always remembers what we talked about last time and we’re able to review the progress I’ve made since then or any areas that have room for improvement Sometimes she repeats what I said back in her own words. That way I know she understands me and that I’m coming across clearly. 

3) Does your mental health professional empower you to be independent? 

 If you feel your therapist doesn’t believe in you, it might be difficult to believe in yourself. A good therapist challenges your boundaries without going overboard or being nosy. With the support of my current therapist, I’ve succeeded in living on my own for the first time. We’ve focused on the importance of communicating, going out, and not isolating myself with the intention to better develop healthy relationships. 

4) Does your mental health professional know how to manage relations with your family?

 I give my therapist permission to discuss issues that are important to me with my mom and dad. This has improved my relationship with them. She helps me address my wants and needs with my parents, and they are very supportive. I’m financially dependent on my parents right now, which is a sensitive issue both for them and for me. My therapist is helping us work through that challenge together as I find a career that will enable me to support myself.  

5)  Is your mental health professional attentive to your body as well as your state of mind?

An effective therapist encourages you to take care of your body as part of healing your mind. This includes eating healthfully, moving in ways that feel good, and looking your best. My therapist knows I have physical issues that relate to my eating disorder. I have a body image problem, so she helps me address this and achieve a balance between what I look like and how I feel.

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To see if a particular mental health professional is the right fit, guidelines are needed. There are no easy answers to the questions posed above, but it helps to have a mental map of what works. It’s critical to know what qualities to look for in a therapist even if you don’t have a wide range of choices. The first step is meeting with someone and making an assessment. Never make a commitment without a preliminary conversation. If you, a loved one, or a friend is looking for help, I hope my experience gives you food for thought.