Choosing a Therapist

Where to Find a Counselor

By: Suzanne LaCombe Ed.D., R.Psych. June 8, 2006.
Updated: January 7, 2011.


Here's a partial list of where to find names of counselors.

  1. Online Sources of Listings (e.g. see the Therapist Locator).
  2. Getting a Professional Referral (see below).
  3. Getting a Referral from your Physician (see below).
  4. Getting a Recommendation from a Friend (see below).

Most people want to find the name of a counselor from a context they're familiar with.

For instance:

  • Psychologists might choose among other psychologists when looking for a therapist (yes, psychologists go to therapy too). And for similar reasons, a social worker might choose another social worker.
  • My friend has a friend I haven't met and my friend says she's noticing positive changes in her friend. She recommends her friend's therapist when I mention I'm looking for a therapist.
  • My physician has has good experiences with a therapist she regularly refers to. Her patients are getting better. She refers me to her when I request a referral.

All these instances provide a familiar context from which to choose a psychotherapist. When these opportunities don't present themselves we choose names from other less familiar contexts.

1. Online Sources of Listings.

There are several kinds of online listings. Counselors are listed as:

  • Members or registrants of a licensing or regulatory body,
  • Members of an association of a type of counselor,
  • Members of a society or group practicing the same type of treatment,
  • Participants in a paid listing of credentialed therapists.


Counselors are listed as members of a regulatory body.

So for example, as a psychologist I am registered with the College of Psychologists of BC and you can check my registration by going to the College's website to confirm it.

The term "regulatory" refers to organizations that are the legal representatives in a state or province who have the right to confer titles or licences according to law.

To obtain a license or registration applicants usually must qualify with the minimum of:

  • Education (e.g. Masters in Social Work; Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology),
  • Completion of certain courses (e.g. biological bases of human behaviour),
  • A specified number of hours of clinical experience,
  • A specified number of hours of supervision by a qualified practitioner.

A written and/or oral examination are also often required.

Once the requirements are met the applicant can be listed with the organization and generally you can check the credentials online.

Each state or province manages the licensing of their health care workers in a way that is often unique to them. For instance in Florida, the Department of Health dispenses licenses to social workers, mental health workers and marriage and family therapists.

If you wanted to learn about licensing requirements and/or to locate a practitioner you would check their website (e.g. Florida's Look up License).

Counselors are listed as members of an association of their peers.

Counselors are listed because they are members of a professional organization representing a type of counselor (e.g. Vermont Mental Health Counselors Association, British Columbia Psychologists Association).

These organizations are advocates for their members and as such work with the public and/or the government to promote the benefits of their profession. These organizations usually offer a Find a Therapist locator service where they list their members (See mine for instance in the BCPA locator: Psychologist Listing).

It is important to understand that these organizations differ from the regulatory bodies described above. Memberships in these organizations is voluntary and while many only allow membership to licensed practitioners in their respective fields this is not a hard and fast rule.

Sometimes they allow a tiered membership with full membership going only to those who are licensed and limited memberships to those who are unlicensed.

Counselors are listed as members of organizations that practice a type of therapy.

Counselors are listed as members of a society or organization that practice a specific type of therapy (e.g. American Psychoanalytic Association, United States Association of Body Psychotherapy USABP). These psychotherapists are listed in a directory because they have an interest in the type of treatment.

Some, but not all of these types of organizations have certain requirements that must be met for memberships. Because these organizations want to advance their specialty they often have memberships for the general public. So for example, the USABP has a clinical, associate, affiliate, student and institutional membership.

Counselors are listed with businesses that market their services.

These listings are a form of advertising for practitioners' practices. Psychology Today and 4Therapy are two well-known online sources of therapist listings. These type of businesses serve a useful service to the public by making it easy for potential clients to find therapists in their areas. They often include information about the therapist's practice and how they work so potential clients have a way of distinguishing between counselors before they make a choice.

Some of these listing organizations require certain requirements before an individual can sign up with them. However, I wouldn't assume that the listing organization has confirmed these qualifications.

My Personal Musings

Frankly, the best system I've seen is where a link is provided where the potential client can verify the qualifications online. Deciphering and navigating the whole field of "credentials" is hard even for seasoned therapists.

Therapists who have given some thought to how their potential clients find them put a link to the regulatory body they're listed with. This makes it very easy for the client to check credentials.

2. Getting a Professional Referral

Among counselors, a "referral" is a recommendation that originates from another professional. The idea is that a professional who knows what you need will recommend someone they feel could help you. This of course depends on how well they understand what you need to begin with and how well-connected they are to other professionals.

This is where experience comes in. For instance, as a counselor it has taken me a few years to get a list together of other psychotherapists I can feel comfortable in making a referral to.

3. Getting a Referral from Your Physician

Getting a referral from your physician can be a great idea especially if you have known your physician for some time and can trust his or her judgment in this area. Ideally, you have found a physician who is well-connected to the therapeutic community.

However, I wouldn't automatically assume that my physician who is great at solving acute physical problems knows the therapeutic community. It is therefore reasonable to ask a couple questions like how your doctor knows this counselor. Have other referrals to this individual turned out well?

Confidentiality and your physician.

These days owing to managed health care and rising health care dollars, we don't always have the luxury of a close relationship with our physician. (Increasingly, especially young people in Canada, are using walk-in clinics to get their health needs met.)

A safe, trusting relationship requires time. Without it you may not always feel comfortable in disclosing certain details of your history to your physician even though historically this was the role they played for years.

Just because your physician referred you to someone does not give your physician the right to know any details about your counseling or even whether you went to see the counselor—unless you have given the counselor your permission.

Most therapists have a signed release form where you can specifically outline the details of what you are comfortable in disclosing.

4. Getting a Recommendation from a Friend

For some people, asking a friend is out of the question either because they prefer to keep their counseling confidential or they don’t know any of their friends who are in counseling. I’ve seen this recommendation in self-help books and mental health sites and in fact have received referrals from old clients who have sent their friends to me.

However, keep in mind...

The relationship between a counselor and client is a unique combination of two personalities--the counselor's and the client's. You may have a completely different experience, and there can be no assurance that you will have the same results as your friend. As well, your friend will probably have a completely different set of issues--even if there is some commonality between you.

So if you do go to see a friend's recommended counselor but your experience is different, never blame yourself or the counselor. Remember: you can't get the benefits of counseling without the right connection with the counselor.

When you know the kind of counseling you want.

If you already know the type of treatment you want or are curious about a certain kind of counseling, go to the state or provincial psychotherapist association that promotes it. Typically, they will list counselors who are trained in this area.

Some of these organizations provide training to new members and offer lower fees for therapy as a result. So for example, if I wanted to get psychoanalytic psychotherapy I might choose to see a therapist who is in training at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. As requirements for entrance to this training program is pretty strigent, I'm almost certain to find a therapist who has several years of clinical experience.

Tight Budget?

Your local College or University

If your budget is tight, consider your local college or university. If they offer a graduate clinical or counseling program they may have a clinic where you can receive low-fee or pro bono (no fee) counseling.

Therapist interns receive close supervision because they are in training. And, because they usually have few clients, you may be fortunate in finding a good therapist.

Remember, you have a choice. If you feel your therapist does not fit your needs, give some thought to requesting another therapist. (I'll grant you that this isn't the easiest thing to do especially if you need to put the request out to your therapist.)

Your Local Community Mental Health Centre

While your local community centre may provide treatment, but it will probably be short term only. They are typically under-funded (ahh, once again, reflecting our society's priorities) and the qualifications of their counselors probably vary quite a bit across Canada and the USA.

An alternative to community mental health centres are clinics run by university or college counseling programs. As trainees of the counseling program have limited case loads and on-going supervision you may be able to find a good therapist. Keep in mind that the student intern will only be at the centre or clinic for as long as their program requires.

Did You Know!

I mentioned this elsewhere but it's worth repeating. A counselor does not need to prove their credentials in order to have a listing in the Yellow Pages or the Super Pages. Anyone can list their name under ‘Counselors’, ‘Marriage Counselor,’ or even under ‘Psychologists’ even if they lack appropriate credentials.

The word ‘Psychologist’ is a legal designation and is regulated by the College of Psychologists in each province in Canada and in each state in the USA.

The folks at the Super Pages (at least in Canada) won’t have any quarrel if someone lists without actually being a registered Psychologist. However, the College of Psychologists will, and they will certainly send the legal beagles out if someone does!

Related Topics

What is a psychotherapist?

Psychologist or Therapist?

Choosing a Counselor

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