The idea of sharing personal stories and emotions can be scary, especially if you’re still feeling hurt or vulnerable from a breakup. Delving into these difficult feelings can ultimately be one of the most helpful ways to cope and move on. That’s where counseling comes in. Talking with someone one-on-one in a safe space is a great option for anyone who may need support.
To learn more about the process of starting counseling, we met up with licensed clinical psychologist and motivational speaker Martha Ramos Duffer whose work is centered on trauma treatment, empowerment and personal growth. She provided us with incredibly helpful information on how to choose a counselor.
What are the differences between a counselor, therapist, psychologist and psychiatrist? Who would you suggest for someone who has left an abusive relationship?
That’s an important place to start. The words psychotherapist, therapist and counselor are all used interchangeably. These are people who have received master’s degrees in counseling, social work or psychology. Psychologists have more training because they are doctorate level therapists. Any of these professionals can do a great job providing therapy.
On the other hand, psychiatrists have a doctorate in medicine. In most states they are the only ones who can prescribe medicine and most don’t provide therapy. What most often happens is that somebody who needs medication will see a psychologist or other licensed counselor for therapy and see a psychiatrist for medication.
It’s important to make sure the professional you decide to speak with is a licensed mental health professional. Terms like “licensed professional counselor” are legally regulated, so not just anybody can call themselves that. Words like “counselor” or “coach” are not regulated, so anybody can call themselves that.
What are the steps to take in order to find the right counselor?
The first thing to think about is financial access. Will you try to use insurance to pay? If not, will you pay out of pocket and do you need sliding scale fees? Some therapists offer varying prices based on the client’s income level.
Some communities also have local mental health centers with low fees. If you’re just leaving an abusive relationship and you don’t have access to funds or insurance, see if one of these exists in your area.
If you have insurance, call and request a list of mental health care providers. After you have a list, you can begin to ask around to see which of these professionals are recommended by others. If you’re coming out of a shelter, ask the people who work there for recommendations. Ask friends and family if anybody has seen a mental health professional who has worked well for them.
If your friends and family members haven’t used mental health professionals, there are other options. Ask for recommendations from other health professionals in the community, like your physician or even other psychologists. Psychology Today is also a useful site where many mental health professionals advertise, allowing you to read doctors’ bios and research more options in your area.
Call several different therapists and talk with them before setting up an appointment. This lets you determine how comfortable you feel and how responsive they are. Ask if they have expertise working with clients who have experienced trauma and domestic violence.
What are some red flags that indicate that a therapist may not understand domestic violence or aren’t a good fit for you?
If a therapist gets defensive when you ask them if they have experience with trauma and domestic violence, then it is likely that they are not well trained in that area.
Another huge red flag is if a therapist wants to begin by looking at your role in the relationship and treats the abuse as a mutual-fault issue. That doesn’t mean that in complex ways we don’t all play a role in every dynamic but that’s not how to treat a survivor of domestic violence. If they start to discuss the situation as if it was a traditional marriage or relationship issue and try to explore your own role in triggering or participating in the abuse, this is a clear sign they don’t understand domestic violence.
If a counselor recommends couples therapy or marriage therapy, this is also a red flag. This is not recommended when there’s battering and violence in a relationship.
How do you know a counselor is a good fit for you?
A good match between therapist and client is one of the most powerful healing factors in a therapeutic relationship. Look for someone who makes you feel heard, understood, safe and comfortable.
If you don’t feel this way, it makes sense to look for someone else. However, it’s important to first ask yourself what is making you uncomfortable. Is your discomfort coming from how difficult it is to talk about this? Of course you’re going to feel badly as you start to talk about what happened. There are all kinds of things that can make a first session not feel good, and you need to discern if your discomfort is because starting the process is difficult, or because you don’t feel heard and understood by the counselor.
Check the blog on Wednesday for the second part of our interview with Martha.