Once you’ve found several therapists that you’re interested in, you’re now ready for an initial consultation. At this point, you’ve probably left or filled out a number of voicemails and contact forms. After a few days, you should expect that a number of therapists will call you back. What should you expect from the call back?
While not every therapist advertises this fact, most mental health care providers are prepared to offer some form of free consultation. This means that they plan on answering questions regarding their practice, questions of fit, and other questions you might have before paying them for their services.
A consultation benefits both the therapist and the client. It can help both of you save time if it’s clear a fit isn’t there. However, it’s important for you, the client, to be prepped for these consultations so you can make the best use of your time and money.
When a therapist calls you back, they are generally expecting to have a proper phone consultation with you. Once you’ve engaged in your search process, you should expect to answer most, if not all calls until you’ve found your therapist. Therapists may return calls as late as 8:30 PM and the source may show No Caller ID. This article discusses how you should approach this initial discussion with them.
What is a consultation?
Though this article will focus on phone consultations, some therapists also offer free in-person consultations. There isn’t an industry standard for a phone consultation, but generally you can expect to speak with a therapist for around 10-20 minutes. A consultation with a therapist is a short conversation to understand if the therapist is a good fit for you. This fit includes not only practice style and personality, but also other details like whether the provider’s availability works for you or if they’re within your budget.
Generally, you should have phone consultations with several therapists. From the ones you enjoyed speaking with the most, you may move forward with a session. If possible, we recommend an initial session with two different therapists before you ultimately stick with one of them. You may not know which therapist you liked most during your phone consultations. It will be obvious which you prefer, between your two favorites, once you’ve met them face-to-face.
Keep in mind that this consultation is not therapy. This call is about deciding to engage in therapy with this particular therapist. Actual therapy won’t start until you’ve begun meeting the therapist for formal sessions.
Why you should have a consultation
First and foremost, a consultation is about saving time and money. While therapy may feel different than paying for most services, ultimately you’re employing the therapist to help you. It is wise to have spoken with anyone you plan on hiring to answer questions you have. This also allows you to gut-check your fit with the therapist. Ultimately you want to be happy with your decision and this is another way to ensure you’re making a good one.
From the client’s perspective, a phone consultation allows them to ask questions about the therapist’s practice and iron out logistical details. If you’re speaking with a therapist who operates independently, you’ll spend some time discussing fees and availability in addition to questions about their practice methodology and experience. If you’re speaking with a therapist who is part of a clinic or group practice, the front-desk staff can manage fee and availability questions so you can focus your phone consultation on more specific practice-related questions.
From the provider’s perspective, the free phone consultation is also equally valuable in assessing if they feel comfortable treating the client. Therapists are ethically obligated to let you know if they don’t feel like they can help you. If they don’t think they can help, they will politely decline an appointment or refer you to someone who is better equipped to help you.
Questions to ask yourself before the call
Before you begin your call, there are several important questions you need to ask yourself:
What are my goals, hopes, fears involved with therapy?
It’s alright if you don’t have very specific goals. You may only have a feeling of being mentally unwell and you want help. You may also have specific issues that you want to address. Whatever the case may be, the better you can articulate how you feel during the call to the therapist, the easier it is to get a feel for whether they can help you.
What is my budget? What am I comfortable spending?
If the provider you’re contacting is in a clinic, you will start asking these questions with the front-desk. Questions about sliding scale may or may not be handled directly with the provider depending on how much the front desk handles for them.
Regardless of who you speak with, you should understand what the fees are. What you will have to pay out-of-pocket will be a combination of multiple factors including whether your insurance covers out-of-network specialist services. Some insurance plans will not provide any support until you’ve met a high deductible. Others may offer you coinsurance of 80%, meaning you may only be on the hook for 20% of the provider’s rate - up to the maximum reimbursement rate..
Another factor you should keep in mind is your financial circumstances. A lot of therapists provide some form of sliding scale. Therapy is an investment in yourself and so you should not merely aim for the lowest priced provider. However, therapy is also not an inexpensive service. Sometimes a therapist seems like a good fit but you really cannot afford to see the therapist at their rates. You should be open to them with what you can afford and what your circumstances are. Do you have large amounts of student loan debt? Is your income low? This information can help the therapist fit you into their sliding scale options.
During the phone consultation
There are three components to a consultation. Logistical questions, which may or may not be handled by a front-desk, questions about the therapist’s practice, and questions the therapist will have of you. These are not necessarily in order.
The therapist will generally just ask you what brings you to therapy. During this time, they are assessing how you articulate your challenges and whether they believe they can help you. It is a good idea during this time to be broad about your issues. It is easy to dive into too many details but this call is not about receiving therapy and is more about evaluating fit. You evaluate fit as how the therapist listens to you as well as how they respond to your questions, so save some time for your questions.
These are questions pertaining to fees, availability, and any questions about the office, such as parking etc. You may ask these to the front-desk as well.
What insurance do you take?
Do you provide a superbill?
What availability do you have? Will I be able to see you at this time weekly?
What is your cancellation policy?
Do you partner with other professionals like psychiatrists or nutritionists if necessary?
How do you accept payments?
How will I discuss things with you outside of appointments? Can I text you? Is email preferred?
Here are some questions you want to consider asking. Remember, this isn’t a formal session so try not to ask therapy-seeking questions and focus on which questions are most important to you. Here are some questions you may want to consider asking:
Have you helped people with issues similar to mine?
Do you think I’m a good fit?
Can you tell me about yourself?
What type of treatment styles do you prefer?
How will I know therapy is working?
Will I be receiving homework?
How often do you expect me to come into the office?
Have you personally experienced my issues before?
How long have you been in practice?
If you perceive gender or sexuality to be core components of therapy for you, be sure to ask questions related to this. Most mental health care providers are white and heterosexual. If you are queer or a person of color, you may want to consider questions related to cultural competence. While it’s not shown that gender or sexuality largely affect the therapeutic process, trust does. If you don’t feel like you can trust the therapist because cultural competence, you should absolutely ask questions around the therapist’s history of working with people similar to yourself, their views on racism or gender identity, and whether or not they understand issues in society that pertain to you racially or sexually.
Wrapping up the consultation
If the provider is in a clinic, you’ll do the scheduling with their front-desk usually so you can just thank them for their time and say you’ll talk to their front-desk if you want to move forward.
If you’re speaking with an independent provider, you’ll usually have an opportunity to schedule an appointment with them at the end of a call. They may also point you towards an online-booking option. If you’re not comfortable setting up an appointment at that time, you are not obliged to. You are welcome to say that you need sometime to think. If you think you might go with that person, you may ask at that time whether you can schedule an appointment via email or text to avoid playing phone-tag.
Regardless of whether you decide to schedule an appointment then and there, you should definitely keep your calendar ready and on-hand during the call. If you find yourself resonating with the therapist during the call, you’ll definitely want to ensure you’re scheduling a time that actually works for you.
If you don’t feel like the fit is there, don’t feel bad! You’re not going to hurt the therapist’s feelings. It’s better when you’re honest about your feelings as you will save your time and theirs.
Evaluating the session
While we won’t dive into it here, it is widely understood the most important factor for successful therapy regardless of the treatment type is what is commonly called the working or therapeutic alliance. Simply put, it is how well you get along and trust your therapist. This trust and belief in this relationship is foundational to benefiting from therapy. While it’s unlikely you’ll know what your perfect therapist fit is before seeing them, you should ask yourself the following questions if you haven’t yet seen them.
Did I feel comfortable speaking with this therapist?
While difficult, you should try and separate any anxieties you may generally have about therapy from the ability to speak with this person. If the way the therapist spoke made you feel uncomfortable, you may want to consider someone else.
Do I feel like the therapist listened to me?
Phone consultations aren’t easy, for you or the therapist. However, if you feel like the therapist isn’t listening to your questions or seems rushed, that can be a red flag.
Do I feel like I’d like them as a person?
This may sound silly but ultimately you have to trust and respect the person you’re working with in order to benefit fully from therapy. If you find that you dislike the person on the outset, it is unlikely that your feelings will change soon.
Consultations are important for your success with therapy. The road does not end here. In our future articles, we’ll discuss how to have a great session with your therapist.