Are You Asking the Right Questions In Your Search For a Therapist?

If you were searching the web as a consumer, looking for the best Psychologist, would you know what to search for?

If you said that you would look for someone experienced, it is a good guess, but years of experience don’t seem to make too much of a difference in improving therapeutic outcomes (Minami et al., 2009).

What may be necessary is that they are a Psychologist and not a Counsellor. In Australia, anyone can call themselves a Counsellor and open up a practice, even without training. However, if they are a Psychologist, they have to have completed at least four years of undergraduate training, plus a post-graduate degree or at least two years of formal supervision. Psychologists are also obliged to abide by the Australian Psychological Society’s (APS) code of ethics, whereas Counsellors are not.

If you said the company they worked for or how much they charged, these are both good guesses. However, private practice Psychologists are self-employed and set their price for their service, or a company employs and sets their price for them. Therefore, it is unlikely that all Psychologists within the same practice are equally effective, even if they are charging the same amount.

The current recommended rate for a 45–60 minute Psychological consultation in Australia is set at $238.00 by the APS, but all Psychologists have the discretion to vary this fee. For example, services in more affluent locations often charge more, whereas services in poorer areas often charge less.

More expensive Psychologists may believe themselves to be better Psychologists too, but this doesn’t mean that they are. The self-evaluations of therapists are often not very accurate, with a largely positive bias suggesting overconfidence in their general abilities. In a 2012 study by Walfish, McAllister, O’Donnell, and Lambert (2012), they found that out of the 129 therapists surveyed, 25% estimated that their therapy results were in the top 10% compared to the other therapists. Not a single therapist believed that they were worse than the average. If this sample represents the general population, this means that at least 50% of Psychologists don’t realise how bad they are and may therefore not be aware of what they are doing wrong and what they need to do to improve.

What is known is that some Psychologist’s do consistently outperform other Psychologists (Wampold & Brown, 2005). In a 2015 study by Brown, Simon and Minami (2015), they looked at 2,820 therapists, with a combined sample size of 162,168 cases. The researchers found that the lowest-performing therapists required three times more sessions to produce successful outcomes than the average therapist. They also needed as much as seven times the number of sessions as the highest-performing therapists. So choosing the right Psychologist is a crucial task. But,

What characteristics do the best Psychologist’s have, and what do they do that makes them so successful?

1. They practice a specific model of treatment that is most recommended for your condition or is a good fit for the type of therapy you are interested in

(Model of Treatment = 15% of overall outcome variance)

There are many different schools of Psychotherapy, such as CBT, ACT, DBT, Positive Psychology or Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. They will all have research supporting their treatments as effective, especially with specific conditions (such as DBT for Borderline Personality Disorder or CBT for Panic Disorder).

What they won’t often advertise is that no matter what school of therapy it is:

  • None of them will help every client
  • The drop out rates can be pretty high
  • Clients who do drop out prematurely tend to fare worse than clients who can complete treatment, and
  • Other psychotherapy schools tend to produce similar results.

So yes, therapy helps, sometimes, and for some people. However, it is perplexing to think how the research findings are all so similar in the different schools of psychotherapy (Wampold, 2001) until it is made clear that non-specific treatment factors are shared across the various schools of psychotherapy. These non-specific factors are described below and together contribute 85% of the overall outcome variance in psychotherapeutic studies (Hubble and Miller, 2004).

Whilst one mode of therapy may not generally be more effective than another, the goodness of fit does seem to be necessary. So try to choose a Psychologist who has experience in treating your particular concern, as well as an approach or therapy model that seems to make sense or appeal to you.

2. They help you to hope, expect and believe that you can improve

(Expectancy of Treatment Effects = 15% of overall outcome variance)

An individuals’ belief that they can improve has a powerful impact on their actual improvement (Bergsma, 2008). More considerable reductions in symptom severity occur post-treatment in those with higher expectations of benefit at pre-treatment (Ogles, Lambert, & Craig, 1991; Rutherford, Sneed, Devanand, Eisenstadt, & Roose, 2010).

Greater expectations can improve hope and increase goal-directed determination, which has been shown to predict treatment completion (Geraghty, Wood, & Hyland, 2010).

Greater expectations of treatment outcomes can also improve distress tolerance. These skills can reduce distress and depression severity across treatment (Williams, Thompson, & Andrews, 2013).

Essentially, the more you expect that a Psychologist can help you, the more likely it is that you will have hope, persist with treatment, and get better.

3. They develop a warm, caring and trustworthy environment where you feel safe to explore and grow

(Therapeutic Alliance = 30% of overall outcome variance)

Another critical issue influencing treatment outcomes is adherence to the treatment interventions, recommendations and strategies. A positive therapeutic alliance can improve compliance with treatment recommendations, which plays a vital role in the overall success of a psychotherapy treatment (Wampold, 2001).

A positive therapeutic alliance improves outcomes by providing professional input and ensuring effective implementation of the strategies. In addition, if a therapeutic alliance can be established, developed and maintained (Cahill et al., 2008), patients are less likely to drop out of treatment and more likely to achieve clinically significant improvements (Miller, Hubble, & Duncan, 2008).

Regardless of the theoretical orientation or the therapist’s experience, the best outcomes happen when therapists are flexible to the needs of the patient and responsive to the feedback that patients provide. They also repair any ruptures in the therapeutic alliance as quickly as possible (Cahill et al., 2008; Miller et al., 2008).

Other research suggests that it is crucial to meet relatedness needs, dependent upon the therapist displaying warmth and genuine involvement in the treatment. As a result, the client feels a sense of caring and connection in the relationship (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

Essentially, the more you can relate to the Psychologist and feel that you are allies working towards a common objective, the more likely you are to improve.

4. They make sure that therapy is the right step for you at the moment and help you to develop the skills, knowledge and motivation needed to improve successfully

(Client’s Life-Circumstances, Personal Resources and Readiness to Change = 40% of outcome variance)

The client is the most significant factor in determining whether or not treatment will be successful, which may be surprising to some people. However, suppose their current life circumstances are unstable, unpredictable, and emotionally or physically unsafe. In that case, it will be difficult for the one hour of therapy every week or two to be sufficient to overcome all of the adverse events that are taking place between sessions.

Not everyone is a good candidate for therapy, and therapy isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. For example, suppose a client prefers not to question things, has significant cognitive disabilities or memory difficulties, is currently manic or severely delusional or psychotic, or is too emotionally labile or reactive in close interpersonal settings. In that case, therapy can have no effect or be potentially harmful.

Lastly, if a client does not believe that they have a problem, then there is not too much that can be done by a Psychologist to help them, even if their family or friends or partner or the legal system believes that a problem exists. Unless the client can create intrinsic motivation for change, positive change is unlikely to occur.

Before seeing a Psychologist, you need to be sure that:

  • You want to change or improve something about yourself
  • You are willing to put in the time and effort that it requires
  • You are eager to explore things to develop and grow, and
  • Now is a good time for you to begin the amount of treatment (both frequency and duration) recommended for you.

If you follow these recommendations when seeking out a Psychologist, it will not guarantee a successful outcome, but it will help. I wish you the best of luck with your search and therapeutic experience!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

8 thoughts on “Are You Asking the Right Questions In Your Search For a Therapist?

  1. It would seem things are quite different in Australia than in the United States regarding therapists (counselors) vs. psychologists. No one here can practice therapy or counseling without a master’s degree or higher.

    Also, I’ve seen a therapist on and off throughout my life (3 separate times) Each time, on seeking a new therapist, I actually interviewed them. Yes, I had to pay for the session, but I told them what I was looking for in a therapist and asked them questions. I found just the right fit for me each time by doing that.

    I find the human mind and behavior so fascinating. Interesting blog you have here.

    1. Hi Lori,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear that you need at least a Master’s degree or higher in the United States. I definitely think we need to do a similar thing in Australia to protect both the public and the profession. Interviewing them also sounds like an excellent idea to make sure that you are the right fit with the therapist!

  2. A lot of people down here in Miami definitely need therapy.

    All the stress and BS that comes from a big city is unbelievable.

    There’s a lot we can do but I don’t want to bore you anymore …..

  3. This is extremely important, thank you for the info and education.

    Therapists are there to help and finding the right one, or a good one in general is so important to the our minds health.

  4. We all have similar challenges within varied contexts. Cayman is such a small country wth no formal training locally so it’s a bit of a nightmare. I’m determined to help improve in the process with my role on the MHC. Its actually just ruining the economic prospects of professionals like myself who have accumulated exorbitant amount of debt in schools while also putting public health at risk. Black market health care is not good for anyone.

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