Most people don’t hesitate to call their primary care doctors when their physical health is compromised. But many don’t apply the same sense of urgency to their mental health. The CDC estimates that in 2019, only 19.2% of adults had received any type of mental health treatment in the previous 12 months.
Mental health treatment is new territory for most. And when fear of the unknown is coupled with fuzzy expectations, the hesitancy to seek help is understandable. Ultimately, the best way to ease your fears is to arm yourself with information. So whether you’re considering seeking help with anxiety, phobia, grief, loss, addiction, or otherwise, here’s what you can expect from a therapy session.
How to find the right therapist
Finding a therapist is much like finding any type of medical provider. First, like medical doctors, therapists often have different specialties and approaches to therapy and treatment. Keeping that in mind, you should give some thought as to why you’re seeking therapy. Ultimately, this self-assessment may lead you to the best therapist for your needs.
Beyond examining why you’re seeking therapy, you might also consider looking for a therapist with a background and belief system that agrees with yours. For example, you may prefer a therapist with the same religion or think you might do better with a specific gender.
You’ll also want to weigh online therapy versus in-person treatments, deciding which would be the most effective and the best fit for your lifestyle.
Finally, you’ll probably want to take a closer look at insurance coverage and rates for any therapist you’re considering. Depending on your financial situation, it may be best to choose a therapist covered by insurance. Just one caveat to keep in mind here: Price isn’t everything. In the end, the cheapest option may not be your best bet. While it may save you money in the long run, you may not get the care and help you really need.
What to expect from your first therapy session
Your first therapy session will look much like a doctor’s appointment. Upon arrival, you’ll be asked to sign in. While waiting, you’ll be asked to fill out all necessary paperwork, including:
- Intake forms (medical history, current medications, insurance information, etc.)
- HIPPA forms
- Record release forms
- Service agreements
While subsequent visits will be therapeutic, your first session will primarily consist of information gathering. Your therapist will likely ask a lot of questions about your current condition, concerns, and past mental health history. They’ll probably take this time to set clear expectations for both parties, let you know what you can expect from the treatment, and maybe gauge your motivation on “doing the work” that therapy often requires.
During the first session, your therapist may ask you about the following:
- Family history
- What brought you to therapy
- Your symptoms
- What’s currently going on in your life (including relationships, career, living situation, etc.)
Once your therapist makes their initial assessment, they may give you some idea about what your therapy will look like, the methods they use, and the length of your treatment. Keep in mind that you only just met, so any information they give you at this point is probably just their best guess. As your therapy sessions unfold and your therapist peels back the onion, things may change.
Questions to ask your therapist
During your initial appointment, your therapist will probably open the floor for you to ask any questions you may have. When you don’t know what you don’t know, that can be far more difficult than it sounds. If your therapist hasn’t covered them already, here are some thought starters.
- What kind of training have you had?
- What therapy or counseling approaches do you use?
- How many appointments will I need?
- Will I have homework?
Therapy sessions thereafter
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that every therapy session varies based on the patient and therapist, as well as what’s going on in the patient’s life at that time. Secondly, therapists run judgment-free zones, and the key to a successful session outcome is to be honest and speak openly — you can say what’s on your mind without feeling weird, stigmatized, or like retaliation is lurking around the corner.
Most people can expect subsequent therapy sessions to begin with a check of sorts. Your therapist will likely ask how you’ve been, what’s been going on in your life, and what’s bothering you. They’ll also ask about any particular goals you’d like to focus on. From there, many therapists will set the agenda for the session.
While your therapy session may be a lot of you “just talking,” your therapist may also throw in some actual therapy. Again, the processes will differ from therapist to therapist, but some of the more common approaches include hypnotherapy, life coaching, visualization, role-playing exercises, or meditation.
Throughout your session, your therapist will likely take notes, but rest assured this is standard practice. Sessions usually last about 50 minutes (the standard therapeutic hour), and your therapist may close the session with an assignment, homework, or things to work on until your next session rolls around.
It’s a process
The most important thing to keep in mind about therapy and wellness is that they’re processes that take time. While you’ve done the hardest part by taking the first step, managing your expectations is crucial. Remember, these are therapists, not miracle workers. It took you 20, 30 years — or whatever it may be — to get here, and it’s going to take some time to get where you’re going. But you’re well on your way, and you should be incredibly proud of yourself.
Mental health resources
Important note: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek help immediately from an emergency room or mental health professional. If you’re unsure where to turn, here are a few numbers and resources: