How to select a qualified counselor

Have you ever tossed around the idea of going to see a counselor? Maybe one of those moments when you felt confused or unsure of the direction you wanted to take, maybe you've had some problems that you just wanted to discuss with someone who could be objective -- but who?  Have you had a lot of head talk about this?  "Maybe I should see a counselor." "Oh yeah, what good would that do?" "Well it might help me make some decisions." "You mean you can't make these decisions by yourself?" "Who would I see anyway I don't know any counselors." "Probably just cost money I can't afford, how do I know it would be worth it?" "Yeah, besides I know someone who went to a counselor last year and it didn't do him/her any good." On and on the head talk goes until you can drive yourself to distraction. It might help if you knew what to look for in a counselor so you can make an informed decision.

First of all, counselors are just people who have specialized training in some areas. Don't be awed or intimidated by them. Not all counselors know the same things, just like not all doctors know the same things; there are huge differences in training and experiences. Picking just any counselor without doing your homework is like playing the lottery--sometimes you hit it, other times you have to keep on trying until something works. Which makes a lot people give up on both the lottery and counselors. The worst thing you can do is pick up the yellow pages and go "eenie, meenie, minee, mo."

The best way to find a competent counselor is to ask your friends, family, minister, priest or your Employee Assistance Program to provide some names of people for you to consider.

If you belong to an HMO you might have to pick a counselor from a preferred provider list. Just because they are on the list does not ensure competency. With their name should be listed their specialty, where they are located, and other pertinent facts.

After you do some homework, make a list of three or four counselors. Call each one and ask for a thirty-minute free session to determine if you are a fit. Most counselors will agree to this, if not don't go there. Always ask to speak directly to the counselor; you do not have to answer questions asked by a receptionist. If they insist on knowing why you are calling say "It is a personal call."  Leave a message on their voice mail and in this message leave your name, number and a good time for them to reach you. Make your thirty minutes count by asking the right questions and do not be afraid to ask them. It is your life and you are entitled to answers.

  • What are your credentials, experience and areas of specialty?
  • Has the counselor ever been to counseling and does he/she have a counselor now? If not, how is mental health maintained?
  • Do you work nights or weekends?
  • Are you willing to accept cash if I do not want my insurance company to know I am here? Do you give a discount for cash?
  • Do you take care of the insurance billing?
  • How long do you normally see patients, weeks, months, years?
  • Will I have access to the counselor by telephone or email?
  • Do you ever refer clients to another therapist?
  • How soon can I expect a treatment plan from you?

Once you have asked the counselor these questions you will have an idea if this relationship will work for you. Remember, you wouldn't hire a carpenter without asking a lot of questions or buy a car without doing a lot of checking. Be just as careful of your mental and emotional health.

Evelyn Leite is a counselor with 26 years of experience in addictions, mental health and grief work. In 1989 she founded Living with Solutions to help clients deal with these issues. She is the author of 8 published books and numerous articles. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 605-484-0576