First Time in Therapy?

If you have never attended a therapy session before, it is normal to have questions about what to expect.  You may even have questions about the scheduling process and what type of questions to ask when you make phone calls to find a therapist.  This process is sometimes anxiety-provoking, particularly if you are seeking therapy for generalized anxiety or social anxiety; just the mere thought of making cold-calls to therapists can be a deterrent to doing so.  However, you will likely find the process is rather simple and there is nothing to fear.  Additionally, you don’t have to know all the questions; it is the therapist’s job to guide you through the process, which you will likely find is rather linear and fluid.

Finding a Therapist

There are many methods to find a therapist nowadays.  It seems the most common, though, are through Psychology Today, local Google searches, and word-of-mouth referrals.  This part of the process may seem overwhelming, as there are likely many therapists in your area.  A good starting point for online search queries are keywords like “tampa therapy,” “tampa therapist,” and “tampa psychologist.”  It can also be helpful to base your search on keywords that describe what you are seeking help with; for example, searching for “tampa depression therapist,” “tampa ptsd psychologist,” etc. will help to narrow down the results list.

Once you obtain a few names of therapists that appear to work with your problem area, it is still important to do a bit more research.  This leads me to my next point.  Do not simply just go down the list, calling each therapist in the order their names appear until one answers and you are able to make an appointment.  Patients and potential patients often tell me this is a method they have used, which is in part why I am addressing this point in this post.

Do Not Go Down the Psychology Today List

Not all therapists are created equal.  This is a fact.  Therapists have different educational levels, training experiences, and areas of specialty practice.  While the urgency to get an appointment may be high, this is not a good reason to simply call each therapist on the list, in order, and schedule an appointment with the first one who answers or calls you back.  The key here is only calling those who fit your needs, which you will have a better idea of when you take the following points into consideration during your search.

Therapists Have Different Types of Education and Training

Independently licensed therapists possess one of three types of degrees:

  1. A masters-level degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, or social work.  These individuals are usually referred to as “counselors,” “therapists,” or “social workers” (if they have a master’s degree in social work).  Masters-level therapists are typically trained to do therapy or counseling, and social workers are also heavily trained in case management.  Most masters-level counseling or social work degrees take an average of two years to complete plus an additional two years of post-masters clinical supervision to obtain licensure.
  2. A doctoral-level degree in clinical or counseling psychology and a license to practice psychology.  These individuals are the only mental health professionals able to be referred to as “psychologists,” but they also sometimes are called “psychotherapists” and “therapists.”  Psychologists are considered experts in diagnosis and treatment, and are the only mental health professionals truly trained in the administration and interpretation of psychological testing.  This was, in fact, the true original purpose of psychologists.  Having completed a doctoral degree, psychologists also have completed research and most often an independent research study in the form of a dissertation.  Doctoral psychology programs typically take an average of 5-6 years to complete, plus the requirement of a one year pre-doctoral internship and one year post-doctoral residency that is typically mandated prior to state licensure.
  3. A medical-degree in psychiatry.  These individuals are most often referred to as “psychiatrists.”  They are medical doctors that primarily prescribe medication for mental health problems.  Some psychiatrists have exposure and some supervision with providing therapy, but this is generally not their area of expertise nor the focus of their education and training.

Therapists Have Different Types of Clinical Experience

With regard to therapy, psychologists tend to have the most clinical training and experience due to the length of doctoral programs, required pre-graduation and post-graduation training experiences, and the heavy focus on treatment and interventions.

The individual training experiences within and between degree programs also vary by professional.  Some therapists choose to focus on working with children, while others work only with adolescents or adults.  Some therapists have experience and training working in inpatient hospital settings, while others are mostly experienced in outpatient settings.  Some therapists work exclusively with substance abuse, while others focus their clinical work on couples.  These are just a couple of examples, but the point is that all therapists are different based on where they have obtained clinical experience and chosen to focus their clinical work.

The Bottom Line

Do your homework.  Look at each therapist’s education (where they went to school and what degree they have) as well as their training experiences.  For example, having some exposure to treating trauma is not the same as a therapist who has had intensive year-long (or more) training or work experiences focusing only on treating trauma and PTSD, and has chosen to specialize in treating trauma.  This goes back to one of my first points: don’t simply make an appointment with the first therapist who calls you back.  Make sure you are scheduling an appointment with someone whose experience matches the help you need.

You wouldn’t schedule an appointment for a heart operation with the first doctor whose name you came across; why would you do so with a mind-doctor?

The Phone Call

This part of the therapy process can be very intimidating for some individuals.  In my experience, people often think they need to ask all the right questions or even be familiar with therapy in order to have a productive discussion.  The good news is this is not at all the case.  If a therapist offers a free phone consultation (at Tampa Therapy, we offer a free 10-minute initial phone consultation), the phone call is an opportunity for you to summarize what it is you are struggling with and wanting help for.  The therapist should be able to explain whether they are experienced in your problem area and provide information about their treatment approach.  It is also common to discuss the cost of treatment, including the fees for services or whether the therapist takes insurance.  The final step of the initial phone call is setting up the first appointment.

The First Session

At the first session, most therapists will begin by reviewing the informed consent and explaining therapy and office policies.  Each therapist explains this information in a different way and some may only take minutes on this, while others may take a good amount of the session.  Nonetheless, the first session is also spent understanding what brought you in for therapy.  Again, depending on the training of the therapist and their approach to treatment, this may include conducting a formal intake where the therapist asks you many structured questions and perhaps even conducts the assessment on a computer.  Other therapists may be more fluid, asking only questions that seem relevant and jotting down notes.  Generally speaking, however, it is the therapist’s job to guide this initial session by asking questions.  It is your job to answer those questions and provide other information that you believe is relevant.  This helps your therapist formulate an understanding of what you are struggling with and how to best help you.

The initial consultation phase may last anywhere from one to three sessions, though sometimes can take longer.  During this phase, the therapist is attempting to understand the problem, your struggle, your history, and how to best help you.  Many therapists will work collaboratively with patients to develop a ‘treatment plan,’ which is basically a guide to understanding your therapy goals and what actions will be taken during your time in therapy.  Sometimes these plans are more formalized, while other times they are verbally agreed upon.  However, some therapists don’t take this approach at all.  As stated earlier, therapists are very different: in terms of their education, training, expertise, and how they conduct their therapy sessions.  At the core, what matters is that you understand how your therapist plans to work with you and that feel comfortable with them.

We’re Here to Help

Finding a therapist is not always an easy process, but it doesn’t have to be complicated either.  Overall, it is important to find a therapist that you feel comfortable with and whose training, experiences, and therapy style fits your needs.  We know this process can seem overwhelming, which is why when you call Tampa Therapy, we walk you through these steps.  We pride ourselves on creating a therapeutic environment that is relaxing, non-judgmental, and welcoming.  Give us a call today to start your journey to healing.


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