There’s a pretty huge demand for mental health services right now. The pandemic has had an immeasurable impact on our lives, and many of us are looking to regain some of our well-being through therapy.
In recent years we've seen monumental strides in doing away with the stigma around mental health issues and seeking professional help. And, as most people will tell you, therapy is not restricted to any one kind of experience or trauma. Many people also use it as a vital tool to keep their mental health in check, and getting ahead of any foreseeable hurdles.
That said, therapy is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and if you haven't had much experience in the area, you may be a little stuck on what to look for when diving in. To help guide you on your journey, we chatted to psychologist Rashida Dungarwalla of The Indigo Project about what you need to consider when starting therapy for the first time.
How to start
First things first, check if your employer or school offers any kind of mental health or counselling program (through your employer, this is often known as an Employee Assistance Program or EAP). This is a great way to introduce yourself to the experience, and the best part is that it's usually free.
If that's not an option, it's a good idea to talk to your GP about a mental health treatment plan. Your GP will ask you a series of questions and ask you to fill out a form about your mental state. Often they’ll refer you to a specific therapist, but you’re not obligated to see this practitioner. More on how to choose your own below.
Depending on where you are, this should enable you to receive up to ten subsidised sessions from the government each calendar year, which will save you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars.
How to choose a therapist
Before diving into therapy, some questions worth asking yourself include: Why am I looking to see a psychologist? Am I feeling anxious? Depressed? Angry? Does it concern my family or romantic partner? You don’t need to have everything sorted but identifying the underlying issue can help narrow the search for psychologists who specialise in one area.
“Have an idea of what you want to work on/your goals and hopes for therapy/what you are hoping to achieve,” says Dungarwalla. “Taking into account what it is that you are hoping to work on in therapy will help with the search.” If a practice's website doesn’t provide this, feel free to call up and ask their reception who they think would be the right fit or who they would recommend based on what you want to work on.
Now, we know that it seems like easy enough to just seek out someone that comes recommended by a loved one, but this could be a conflict of interest, so always disclose to a professional if you are close to one of their patients. Alternatively, services like the Australian Psychological Society's Find a Psychologist tool allows you to search for a practitioner based on their specialties and location.
There are also some more personal factors to think about when looking at a therapist’s specialties. For example, cultural context. This isn’t for everyone, but some may find that they benefit from speaking to someone who can relate to them in certain key areas. Whether it’s gender, sexuality, race or geographical location, there’s plenty of aspects of your identity that you may find yourself wanting to consider.
In terms of pricing, services can vary considerably. Most clinics' websites explicitly lay out their pricing options and your GP will direct you to someone that accepts healthcare plans. But if you're not in a position to pay these amounts, Dungarwalla recommends looking into universities and student clinics that offer free or fee-reduced assistance.
What to expect from your therapist
In your first session
“Each psychologist will approach their first session in a different way,” says Dungarwalla. “It will start with going over confidentiality and most likely continue into an intake session in order to gather information and understanding on what has brought you to therapy, getting an understanding of what your difficulties are, what coping strategies you may already have in place and really just having an opportunity to get to know one another and check it’s the right fit.”
Dungarwalla also recommends getting to know your therapist and their history. “Don’t be afraid to ask your therapist questions about them, how they practice, what they can offer, what continued professional development they do, if they see a therapist themselves etc. on your first appointment.
“Remember the journey of therapy is for your benefit so you want to ensure you are working with someone who truly tries to understand, see and hear you and is there for you. Knowing that it can also take a few sessions to really check if it is the right vibe between you and your therapist and if the therapeutic relationship feels strong.”
After your first session
Once you've completed your first session, you’ll likely get some homework that can look like anything from writing down things you’re grateful for, or just spending more time with people that make you happy.
This is where it's a good idea to take some time to think about the experience. It's a good idea to book your second session at least a week or two after the first. This way, you have ample time to process how you feel about the practitioner before deciding on the cadence of future sessions. During this period you can reflect on whether or not you think your therapist was a good match, but having a committed date for the second session is a good thing, because it makes putting off seeking help that much harder.
It's worth noting that you shouldn't expect any grand breakthroughs straight off the bat. Be open to the reality that it can take some time, and may not look exactly like what you expected.
When deciding whether or not to move forward with a therapist, the main things to consider are whether you're feeling comfortable, understood and receiving feedback that makes you feel like you're on the right track. These are signs that indicate you're a good fit. And if you're not, experts say it's all good to look elsewhere.
“Shopping around is highly recommended,” says Dungarwalla.“ I know it can be unrealistic or cause financial strain, however, this relationship will be like no other — it will be a space of vulnerability, and you want to ensure you feel safe and heard with the person you are working with.”
“Research shows that the number one factor in therapy being beneficial and working well is the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist.”
That said, therapy only works when you're willing to engage with the process. It's a 'you get what you put into it' situation, so it's important to be willing to put some work in yourself.