• Don't be afraid to speak to a psychologist before you make an appointment. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A practical guide to finding a therapist.
Nicola Heath

16 Oct 2018 - 6:00 AM  UPDATED 19 Oct 2018 - 9:28 AM

For many, the decision to see a psychologist is not an easy one. But once you’ve decided to seek help, how do you find the right professional for you?

Before you start Googling, you should head to the Australian Psychology Society (APS) website, which has a Find A Psychologist tool that allows you to search its database for issue and location. Check the websites of organisations like QLife and ACON that feature directories of LGBTIQ-friendly health professionals, or ask friends or family for word-of-mouth referrals.

Once you’ve screened your shortlist for practical factors like location, opening times and cost, check the psychologist’s registrations and suitability – “whether they have competencies in the issue you are presenting with,” says APS president and clinical psychologist Ros Knight.

Don’t be afraid to ask to speak to a psychologist before you make an appointment. It’s essential that you “click” with your psychologist as a person, she says. “Psychology remains one of those professions where you have to trust the person to get the best out of it. Talking to somebody, feeling like they are going to listen to you and understand you is really important.”

This is particularly important for marginalised groups like the LGBTIQ+ community. A psychologist’s office needs to be an inclusive space where a person feels safe to disclose their story, says Sarah Lambert, Director of Community Health and Regional Services at ACON. “People don’t want to see someone who doesn’t understand them. They feel the need to educate the health professionals, which takes away from their experience.”

Ask questions. Shoot them an email to give them a rundown about what you are looking for

Lambert tells clients to treat psychologists and health professionals like any other service, whether it’s a hairdresser or a mechanic. “Ask questions. Shoot them an email to give them a rundown about what you are looking for,” she suggests. Ask what experience a clinician has working with diverse families or if they’ve done any training around the health needs of LGBTIQ+ communities. “Psychological services are expensive,” she says, “so it’s worthwhile doing a little bit of homework.”

Knight says it’s “more common than people think” for a patient to try a number of psychologists before finding the right one. Lisa, a participant in SBS program How ‘Mad’ Are You, reveals that it took her four years to find a psychologist who could help her. “If after a couple of sessions, it feels like it’s just not going to work for you, absolutely you should move on,” says Knight.

Your first appointment

A competent therapist should try to understand you as a person and the context in which your issues are occurring from the start. “In the first session, the psychologist should be really interested in understanding what you’re experiencing – what it is that has brought you through the door,” says Knight. “They should be trying to assess what’s happening for you, how serious it is, as well as what strengths you bring that mean there’s hope of improvement.”

At the end of your first consultation, you should feel like you’ve been listened to, understood and accepted, and have a sense that the psychologist is, “curious about how to help,” says Knight. “You should feel comfortable, you should feel heard, and you should have a sense of hope that things can change.”

If you feel like you need to “self-censor” by changing how you talk about your relationships or avoiding using gender pronouns, it’s unlikely that you’re getting the most out of the relationship, observes Lambert.

At the end of the session, your psychologist should give you something to do – a tangible task to complete. “In therapy, we talk about how the most important thing is that you walk out and do something different,” says Knight. “It doesn’t have to be a big thing.”

Ongoing therapy

Cost is a conversation you should have early on in the piece. Under the current rules, Medicare offers a rebate for up to 10 sessions. After that, seeing a psychologist on an ongoing basis can be prohibitively expensive.

Jill Stark, author of Happy Never After, describes how at her lowest point, she expended her free Medicare sessions in just five weeks. “I saw my psychologist twice a week just to keep my head above water,” she writes in the Sydney Morning Herald. “At almost $200 per hour, I then had to raise almost $400 a week just to stay in therapy and out of hospital.”

Stark argues that we must stop rationing psychological services, a point Knight echoes. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that the more serious issues don’t get fixed in 10 sessions,” Knight says. “We have some hope that the government is going to allow more sessions for specific problems.”

Some people may be able to access more sessions through their private health fund, others through a community health centre or NGO. For others, reducing the frequency of visits makes the cost of seeing a psychologist more manageable. “Instead of being every couple of weeks, it becomes once a month,” says Knight. “A lot of psychologists also discount or charge a minimal fee where they believe there’s a high risk.”

Another option is eTherapy, online therapy tools such as MindSpot, a free service based at Macquarie University, and The Brave Program, a program aimed at the prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent anxiety.

Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath

Mental health support services:

Black Dog Institute

Lifeline - 13 11 14 

Carers Australia 1800 242 636 - Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.

Headspace 1800 650 890 - a free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 - A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.

Mindspot Clinic 1800 61 44 34 - An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)

QLife 1800 184 527 - QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. 

Relationships Australia  1300 364 277- A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.

SANE Australia 1800 18 7263 - Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.

Support after Suicide

Source: Beyond Blue  

The new  SBS series 'How 'Mad' Are You?' takes a unique look at mental health. Catch up on the first episode on SBS On Demand. Part two airs next Thursday October 18 at 8.30pm.

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