The first thing that anyone considering therapy wants to know is whether a prospective therapist is trustworthy, credible and qualified. So, it’s important to check out a therapist’s qualifications, professional background and membership of relevant professional organisations. It’s also important to bear in mind that the titles ‘psychotherapist’, ‘therapist’, ‘counsellor’ etc are not protected in law (unlike, say, ‘doctor’ or ‘solicitor’) – so anyone can call themselves a therapist, including specific types of therapist, even if they have no qualifications or relevant experience.
The best way of confirming that a prospective therapist has received appropriate training and has signed up to a code of conduct and an accompanying complaints process is to check that they are listed on an appropriate professional register, maintained by a professional body which is recognised by the Professional Standards Authority.
[The PSA’s website lists relevant organisations at https://www.professionalstandards.org.uk/what-we-do/accredited-registers/find-a-register. Click on ‘Counselling’, ‘Psychotherapy’ or ‘Talking Therapies’.]
The principal bodies which have a range of therapists on their registers are the Association of Child Psychotherapists; the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy; the British Psychoanalytic Council; and the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
The next requirement is to find a therapist who practises a type of therapy which is suited to your needs (see also, What should I expect if I opt for therapy?), for example, interpersonal therapy (IPT) was specifically developed to help combat depression, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is widely used to help people cope with anxiety and problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Practitioners of different types of therapy tend to have different approaches to their clients/patients, and this will have an impact on what you should be looking for when choosing a therapist. This is probably most important in the case of person-centred therapy (or counselling), because this typically involves a closer relationship between counsellor and client; the counsellor may draw on their own experiences to help their client, and it is important for the success of this approach that they can empathise with the client.
In the case of psychodynamic psychotherapy, the psychotherapist typically reveals almost nothing about themselves in the course of treatment, but on the other hand the material covered in sessions is likely to be more deeply personal, and the patient will therefore want to feel comfortable about revealing their innermost thoughts to the therapist.
Although therapists of all kinds tend not to specialise in highly specific areas, most therapists will list mental health conditions or challenges in which they are particularly interested and/or in which they are particularly experienced. It’s a good idea to see (and, if necessary, ask) whether they are experienced in your particular area of concern. Finally, you should bear in mind that, as well as a therapeutic relationship, this will also be a professional relationship, and you should check the therapist’s fees, how they will be billed and when payment will be expected. Don’t be afraid to ask for a brief written statement or contract, if one is not proactively offered, setting out the terms of the professional relationship; crucially, this should include information about items such as breaks in therapy (where applicable), payment terms, liability for fees in the event that you decide to end the therapy early and what to do in the event that you had a complaint about your therapist.