5 Steps To Background Check a Therapist (With Red Flags to Avoid)
Finding a therapist who’s the right match is a lot like dating. It takes going out on a few dates to learn that someone isn’t quite a match for you. But there are people you know aren’t worth your time as soon as you meet them or read their online dating profile, especially after you’ve dated enough people. Over time, you learn how to spot red flags and avoid the toxic people you ended up with when you were younger.
You can learn how to avoid bad therapists the same way you learn to avoid bad dating partners. There's no fool-proof formula for finding a good therapist, but you can improve your chances if you know how to spot a bad one.
With this step-by-step guide, we can help you learn how to recognize warning signs on an online profile, confirm an initial impression during your first session, and ask questions that will help you determine if a therapist is qualified to treat you.
Read on to learn the steps you can take to improve your chances of getting a good therapist.
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Verify their license.
Verifying a therapist’s license is like running a background check on them. It doesn’t prove a therapist is good as much as it shows they’re not bad—or at least that they haven’t been caught being bad.
Therapists are legally required to be licensed by a state board to practice therapy. This means there’s a government agency that keeps tabs on your therapist—and the records that agency keeps are public documents you can retrieve with an online search.
What Can You Find Out When You Look Up a Therapist's License?
When you look up a therapist’s license online (or over the phone), you can usually find the following information:
- Whether that therapist is, in fact, licensed
- Whether their license is active, expired, revoked, or suspended
- Whether they have a history of being disciplined for ethical violations
There are a few exceptions to the licensure requirement. Associate therapists who are working towards licensure are allowed to practice under the supervision of another licensed therapist, and sometimes there are exceptions to licensure for therapists who practice in certain facilities or industries that are regulated in other ways.
However, for the most part, to legally provide therapy, a therapist has to have a license. A licensing board grants a license to a therapist after they meet specific degree, experience, and testing requirements. To maintain a license in good standing, a therapist must abide by the ethical, professional, and legal standards outlined in professional regulations.
What Types of Therapists Are There?
Different types of licensed therapists you might come across in your search include:
- Licensed professional counselors (LPCs)
- Licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs)
- Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs)
- Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs)
- Psychologists (PhDs or PsyDs)
- Psychiatrists (MDs or DOs)
The purpose of licensure is to protect consumers from unethical or incompetent therapists. Consumers can file a complaint with a licensing board if they know or suspect a therapist has violated professional standards.
Things that can cause a therapist to lose a license or be disciplined by a licensure board include having a sexual relationship with a client or violating confidentiality requirements. Violations that can result in a therapist being fined or censured but still able to practice include not maintaining sufficient clinical records or making minor, accidental confidentiality violations, like leaving a record out on their desk where a member of the maintenance staff saw it.
Check Out Our Helpful License Lookup Tools and Guides!
To start the process of checking a therapist’s license, visit our State-by-State License Lookup Guide, where you’ll find links to local licensing boards and official license lookup pages.
To learn more about what you might find and what it means, you can read “How to Verify a Therapist’s License.”
To understand the differences between the types of licenses you might find, you can read “What Different Kinds of Therapists Are There?”
If you ever need to report a therapist to a licensing board, you can read “Filing a Complaint Against a Therapist” for more information on how to do it and what to expect when you do.
Look at their profile.
Like any other professional, therapists have to market themselves. They have to make information about themselves visible so potential new clients can find them. This means that most either have a profile on a site like ours or Psychology Today or have their own website that you can find with a Google search.
You can learn a lot about a therapist if you read their profile. Once you’ve checked their license and know they’re abiding by basic ethical and legal standards, you can get a sense of who they are and how they practice by taking this next step.
What Can You Find Out by Reading a Therapist's Bio?
Usually, an online profile or biography, even a relatively short one, will give you the following information about a therapist:
- What level of education they have
- Where they received their degree(s)
- How long they’ve been practicing
- What style(s) of therapy they practice
- What therapy method or methods they use
- What philosophy guides their therapy practice
- What their personality and professional tone are like
- What kinds of clients they have the most experience with
- Whether they have additional certifications beyond their license
This last one can tell you a lot about a therapist. There’s a difference between reading a book on a therapy method and putting in the effort to train and become certified in it.
If a therapist practices a method that offers certification but doesn’t mention whether they’re certified, ask them. Being certified in a specialized method isn’t a guarantee that a therapist is good, but it’s a good sign. It shows they’re willing to put in the effort to get it right and that they hold themselves to high professional standards.
What Methods Can a Therapist Be Certified In?
Not all therapy methods offer certification, but many do, including:
- Psychoanalysis (Freudian, Jungian, or otherwise),
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR),
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and
- Emotion-focused therapy (EFT).
If you want to take your research even further, research the method a therapist is certified in and see if it’s widely accepted as an effective and safe therapy method.
If a therapist has a website, you can find out even more about them by looking beyond their bio. Many therapists keep blogs. By reading a blog entry or two, you can get a better sense of your therapist’s voice and the topics they’re passionate about.
Do they seem to know what they’re talking about? Are they likable? Do they seem familiar with the issues you face? It’s even easier to develop an intuitive hunch about them if they have any videos on their site that you can watch to see what they look and sound like.
Read online reviews.
We all know online reviews can be biased. Some review sites favor or highlight negative reviews, while other sites do the opposite.
But while they can be misleading, reviews can be helpful, too. The key to making the most of them is to read between the lines of individual reviews and consider the bigger picture.
Our go-to advice when reading online reviews is to look for a pattern. Don’t just look at whether the reviews are good or bad—note the specific comments people make. Is the praise or criticism consistent? Does it seem authentic?
Sometimes, “good” or “bad” is a matter of personal preference, not an absolute. For example, some people don’t like a therapist who’s too quiet, while others prefer a therapist who is. Some people like a therapist who’s blunt and to the point, while others prefer a therapist with a softer tone.
What Qualities Does a Good Therapist Have?
While some therapist traits are neutral, there are some universally good qualities that all good therapists have. Make note if multiple positive reviews say that a therapist is:
- A good listener
- Easy to talk to
Good therapists help you see when you’re doing something negative or harmful, but they don’t do it in a way that makes you feel judged or ashamed. They make you feel more hopeful, not less. On the other hand, a bad therapist pushes a specific agenda, seems to have an axe to grind, and can wound you with their cutting and condescending remarks.
Good therapists may choose to disclose limited personal information but generally focus on you and don’t talk much about themselves. It’s the sign of a bad therapist to cross boundaries and overshare or make the therapy session as much about their issues as yours. And only unethical therapists pursue sexual or other dual relationships with clients.
What Qualities Does a Bad Therapist Have?
While good therapists can vary widely in personality and style, there are universally negative traits that are the mark of a bad therapist. When you’re reading reviews, watch out for multiple reviews that describe a therapist as:
- Focused on a personal agenda
- Culturally insensitive or racist
Before you start your research, there’s something important to note about online therapist reviews. Remember the licensing boards and laws we talked about earlier? Well, in many states, it’s a licensure violation for a therapist to solicit good reviews. If you see a lot of good reviews that seem like they were solicited, it can be a sign that an unethical therapist asked clients to post them.
This certainly isn’t always the case, which is why it’s important to get a sense of the details, authenticity, and larger patterns of the reviews. But this means it’s also important not to judge a therapist for having few or no online reviews.
Do a phone interview.
Once you’ve done as much research as you can online, it’s time to reach out. The only way to get the full picture of whether a therapist is a good fit is to meet with them.
A good therapist who is looking to take on new clients should be willing to talk to you to help you decide if they’re the right therapist for you. An initial consult can be anything from a 20-minute phone call to an hour-long interview session.
Whether a therapist charges a fee for this depends on the type of consult and the therapist. It’s not a bad sign if a therapist charges a fee for a consult, but it’s totally fine if that’s a deal-breaker for you.
What Questions Should You Ask When You're Interviewing a Therapist?
Asking a therapist the right questions can make a huge difference in how effective your interview session is. Some good questions to ask include:
- Why did you want to become a therapist?
- What is your professional background and your qualifications?
- Have you ever been in trouble with a therapy board?
- What kind of clients are you best at working with?
- Why would you want to work with me as a client?
- Have you worked with any clients like me before?
- What is your philosophy about how therapy works?
- What therapy methods do you use and why?
- Do you have any specialties or certifications?
- How do you judge whether therapy is working?
- How do you know that you’ve helped your clients?
- How do you think you could help me?
An interview is as much about getting an intuitive feel for a therapist as it is learning specific things about them. Pay attention to how comfortable you feel talking to them, whether their personal style, methods, and personality are a match for you, and how much effort they put into listening to you and giving honest feedback.
What Questions Should You Ask Yourself After Interviewing a Therapist?
To get a sense of whether a therapist is a good match, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I like this person?
- Do I trust this person?
- Do I feel heard by them?
- Do I feel comfortable with them?
- Do I see myself opening up to them?
- Do they seem like they know what they’re doing?
Also, consider what’s important for you to have in common with your therapist. You may prefer a therapist who has the same religious views, gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnic identity. If you have differences in one or more of these areas, it’s important to see if a therapist has done the work to become culturally competent so that you don’t end up having cringe-worthy racist or homophobic interactions with them.
How Can You Check Whether a Therapist is Culturally Competent?
To check whether a therapist is culturally competent, consider asking:
- What are your views on race?
- What are your views on gender?
- What are your views on sexuality?
- What are your religious views or beliefs?
These are softball questions that can give you a good sense of whether to press further. Does your therapist get defensive or inadvertently reveal bias or fragility? If their answers to these questions seem good enough, consider going further and asking harder-hitting questions like:
- What have you done to educate yourself about the issues I face?
- How do you address and work with your own privilege and bias?
The important thing is to determine whether a therapist from a different background has done the work to learn about clients like you and the issues you face. A therapist doesn’t necessarily have to have been through the same things as you, but they do need to have some understanding of the cultural and social issues that affect you, to care about them, and to take them seriously. If your therapist fumbles or says something ignorant or offensive about these topics, it’s a sign that they’re not qualified to work for and with you as a client.
Try a few test sessions.
Even after doing the best research, it’s impossible to know exactly what it’s like to be in session with a therapist until you’ve actually done it. So, the final step in vetting your therapist is to do a few trial sessions.
While you’re in session, you’ll be looking for the same kinds of things you did in your initial research, but in the nitty-gritty of actual therapy. You can test whether a therapist’s description of themselves matches your experience in the therapy room. You can see if your therapist is empathetic and a good listener. You can see whether the method they use clicks with you.
A sign you've found a good therapist is that you feel better and more hopeful after a session, even (and especially) if you were addressing difficult topics. Another good sign is that you feel like they believe in you and your potential to change and that you believe they can help you.
If you feel good about your therapist after your first few sessions, congratulations! You’re on the amazing road to wholeness that therapy offers. If not, politely let them know you won’t be continuing with them. What you’ve learned should help you in your next round of research.
While it’s impossible to know with absolute certainty that you’ve found a good therapist, taking the steps to vet your therapist can make a huge difference in how well therapy goes for you. It takes more effort upfront to research therapists before you choose one, but it saves you time in the long run. It increases your chances of finding the right person on the first or second try and reduces your chances of wasting time with a therapist who isn’t right for you.
Where Can You Find a Therapist?
If you think it’s time to start seeing a therapist but haven’t found one yet, let us help. You can use the search tools on OpenCounseling to find free or low-cost therapy where you live. You may also want to consider trying affordable online therapy through BetterHelp (a sponsor).
Other options include using insurance (and searching for a therapist on your insurance plan’s website) or calling a mental health crisis or information line to ask for a local referral.
Therapy is a lot like dating. As much as we try to automate it, finding the right match is an imperfect science, because people (and relationships) are complex. We believe these steps will dramatically improve your results, but don’t despair or feel discouraged if your first attempts aren’t successful. There are some bad therapists out there, but there are lots of good ones, too. We wholeheartedly believe it’s worth the effort to find the right one and that your effort will pay off. The amazing changes therapy can bring might just be a call or click away.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.