Updated 29 September 2015

How to choose the right therapist

How do you go about choosing the right therapist?


You’re depressed and not coping. Your friends have suggested therapy and you’re finally considering it. But where should you start? How do you go about choosing the right therapist?

So many people are reluctant to seek psychological help because they’ve had negative experiences in the past. It is important not to assume that therapy doesn’t work, it may just be that the particular therapist you saw wasn’t the right one for you.

Just as you can’t be friends with any person, you cannot form a therapeutic relationship with any therapist. To make therapy work for you, you need to feel comfortable with and trust your therapist.

Here are some tips:

  • Think about who you would feel most comfortable with. Do you prefer a male or female therapist? Someone with a particular worldview or religion? Do you have a language preference?
  • If you are on medical aid, find out what your cover is for psychotherapy. If you are not covered, you will have to consider other options, such as seeing a psychologist at an Out-Patient Department, the Psychology Department of a university or a support organisation.
  • If you can afford private treatment, make a list of potential therapists. Your GP should be able to suggest therapists. Also contact the Mental Health Information Centre for a list of people practicing in your area. An organisation which deals with the problem you encounter, such as the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, will also have a referral list.
  • Phone the therapists and ask them about:
    • Their fee (remember that some work on a sliding scale basis)
    • Whether they do long/short term work (if you can only afford four or five sessions, it is pointless seeing someone who only does long-term psychotherapy)
    • Method of payment they prefer
    • Their approach to therapy
    • Their training
    • Their expertise in dealing with the problem you are experiencing
    • Any other questions you feel strongly about, eg. religious orientation
  • Give yourself time to think about the conversation. Tell the therapist that you would like to think about it and that you will call back if you decide to make an appointment.

The first session:

See the first session as a trial session:

  • Do you feel comfortable with the therapist?
  • Will you be able to trust her?
  • Do you like the way in which she or he treats you?
  • Is she a good match personality-wise?
  • Does the atmosphere feel right to you?
  • Were your needs listened to?
  • Did she behave in a professional manner?

Remember that most therapists also use the first session to ascertain whether your problem falls within their field of expertise. A referral is not a rejection. It simply means that they don’t work in the field you are interested in.

It will be worth your time and money to make sure that you find the most suitable therapist. Some research has found that the relationship between client and therapist is more important to the outcome than the type of therapy employed.

For a list of psychologists in your area contact the Mental Health Information Centre at (021) 938 9229. - Ilse Pauw, Health24


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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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