May 13, 2010

Dr. Katherine C. Nordal on How to Find a Therapist

Questions for psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, about researching and choosing a therapist.

Reporters/editors/producers Note: The following feature was produced by the American Psychological Association. Feel free to use it in its entirety or in part; we only request that you credit APA as the source. We also have a photograph of Dr. Nordal available to reprint.

Dr. Katherine C. NordalIn recognition of May as Mental Health Month, we spoke with Dr. Katherine C. Nordal, APA’s executive director for professional practice.  This article on how to find a therapist is the second of four weekly features released during Mental Health Month.

Dr. Nordal is a licensed psychologist experienced in treating adults, children and adolescents and has clinical expertise in the treatment of stress-related disorders. As executive director for the APA’s Practice Directorate, Dr. Nordal manages a variety of activities involving legislative advocacy, legal initiatives, efforts to shape the evolving health care market, and a nationwide public education campaign, including the Mind/Body Health Campaign, to enhance the value of psychology. Dr. Nordal is a recipient of the APA’s Karl F. Heiser Presidential Award for advocacy on behalf of Psychology. She was an APA/AAAS Congressional Science Fellow (1990-91) and served as a legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives and with the House Select Committee on Hunger. Her clinical interests included: learning, behavioral and emotional disorders in children and adolescents; neuropsychological assessment; brain injury in children and adults; and civil forensic psychology.

What factors are most important when choosing a therapist to treat mental health disorders? 

We know that the alliance between the therapist and the client is a very important factor in treatment outcomes. Certainly the very first step is to verify that the therapist you choose is professionally trained and licensed by a professional board for independent practice. After that, you want to be sure that there is a good relationship fit with the therapist.  A good rapport is critical, so choose a therapist with whom you feel comfortable and at ease.

There are certain questions to think about when seeking a therapist.  For example, it is important to ask about their experience helping people with specific problems, such as anxiety or depression, and with certain groups such as teens, families or the elderly.  It may also be useful to ask about treatment approaches, fees and insurance.

How should a patient go about finding a therapist?

APA’s locator service can provide a listing of psychologists in your zip code.  Your primary care physician or other health care professional may be able to make a referral and friends and family can make recommendations.  If you are using health insurance, the insurance company can provide a listing of mental health professionals who accept your insurance.  And, your local or state psychological association can also give you information about psychologists in your area.

Why would someone consider seeing a licensed psychologist to treat a mental health disorder?  How do psychologists differ from other mental health professionals?

Psychologists are experts in behavioral health.  They practice in many settings including schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, clinics and many have their own private practice. Psychologists work with clients who are looking for help in making lifestyle and behavior changes that lead to better physical and mental health. Psychologists can help people learn to cope with anxiety or depression, deal with stressful situations, overcome addictions, manage chronic illnesses, both physical and psychological, and break past barriers that might prevent them from reaching their goals. Psychologists also administer tests and assessments that can help diagnose a condition or help better understand how the person thinks, feels, and behave. Psychologists often work on teams with other healthcare professionals to give the client the highest level of care.

For many people their support network of friends and family can help when life becomes overwhelming.  They may also have other healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise or relaxation.  But, some people use unhealthy behaviors to manage stress such as eating unhealthy food, or drinking alcohol which can contribute to or exacerbate chronic health problems. When you have tried your usual approaches and still feel overwhelmed it may be time to see a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Psychologists spend an average of seven years in graduate education training and research before receiving a doctoral degree. As part of their professional training, they must complete a supervised clinical internship in a hospital or organized health setting before they can practice independently in any health care arena. It's this combination of doctoral-level training and a clinical internship that distinguishes psychologists from many other mental health care providers.

Psychologists must be licensed by the state or jurisdiction in which they practice, just like other health care professionals. In addition, members of the American Psychological Association (APA) adhere to a strict code of professional ethics.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 152,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.