I am a licensed psychologist in Vancouver Washington, where I provide counseling for adults, couples, and older teens. I am not currently taking new clients, but check out my self-help section while you are here for some things that I hope are helpful. Also check below to find out more about counseling and how to pick the right counselor for you. -Will
Most Recent Self-Help Article (7-7-14): Keys to Mental Health
Client’s Guide to Counseling
I have found from my time being a psychologist (as well as a client) that it can be stressful and confusing to get started with counseling, and figuring out how to make it work. So to help with this, I wrote some basics about the counseling process, and having success with it. I hope that you find it valuable, and wish you the best in your search and counseling experience.
How Counseling Works
In the simplest terms, counseling is a personal learning process focused meeting your goals for self-improvement. Key ingredients to making counseling work are 1) having clearly defined goals for what you want to accomplish (overall and in each session), 2) a high level of personal investment in the process, and 3) a counselor that you like who also has a level of skill necessary to help you. If any of these things aren’t in place, the likelihood of success goes down. So basically, having regular meetings with a skilled professional where you talk about the things happening in your life that are related to your goals, and being motivated to try new things that come up in the sessions, should have you making progress pretty quickly.
1. Setting Goals
The first part of making counseling work is having clear goals. The number of goals varies for each person, and their priority may change week to week based on what is happening in your life. If you are not sure what your goals might be, and the ideas below don’t help, your counselor can help you during you sort them out during your first session. You can also read my article on “How to Set Goals.” Furthermore, as counseling gets going, goals and priorities can change based on the progress you are making. The following prompts are just a few ways of constructing counseling goals (overall and for each session):
I want to learn how to…
I want to get better at…
I want to figure out how to…
I want to feel…
I want to be more…
I want to understand…
I want to improve…
2. Being Invested
The second ingredient to successful counseling is a high level of personal investment in the process. Back in the early days of psychotherapy, the belief was that the client/patient just needed to show up and present the material to be examined, and the counselor would then lead the client to insights that would become a cure for their distress. Research eventually showed that doing this was productive, but not enough.
We now know that for counseling to work fully, the client really needs to be an active and invested participant. Clients that get the most benefit from counseling are usually the most invested; they spend time during the week thinking about the previous session, trying the things that came up during it, planning for the next one, and telling their counselor what their preferences are. No level of counselor skill and experience can make up for this if it is not there. So if you are thinking about counseling but not really all that motivated, check out How People Change, and some of the self-help articles to start.
3. Choosing the Right Counselor
The final piece is having a counselor that you like who is also skilled enough to help you. There are a lot of different types of counseling providers (psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage counselor, etc) with different degrees (Ph.D., Psy.D., MA, MSW, etc), that have different approaches (cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, mindfulness, etc), and help people with different concerns (relationship problems, anxiety, depression, ADHD, alcohol, etc). Furthermore, each of these people has their own individual style and personality that may or may not be a good fit for you. That means looking for the “best counselor” in Vancouver WA would not be as important as the best one for you.
In terms of therapist skill, most licensed counselors are trained in basic techniques that help people, and others will have developed specialties. However, there is going to a range of how well these techniques are applied and how skilled the counselor is in helping you learn more and reach the goals you have set. Unfortunately the counseling field (and many other professions like those in medicine) does not have a good way for people to know this.
So how do you choose? I would suggest you do this based centrally on the “fit” (match) between you and the therapist. It is very hard to know who the best fit is without meeting them or knowing someone that has worked with them, but sometimes just looking at a website or materials can give you some idea. They may seem friendlier, more personable, more competent, more trustworthy, more professional, focus on things more like you do, or seem like a safer bet. This can be a nice indicator of “fit” ahead of time.
To figure this out, I suggest reading the websites or materials from some therapists, and the one you can see yourself sharing comfortably with and learning the most from should be at the top of your list. Then either talk on the phone for a few minutes or exchange a few emails, and see if they would agree to meet for a free 20 minute consultation. After these exchanges, you will probably have a good sense of whether the counselor will work for you. Of course I hope that person would be me, but if it is not, then I hope this helps you on your search. You can read more about my counseling approach here: My Counseling Approach.
Types of Counselors
Below is a list of the different types of counseling professionals to help you get a sense of the type of training each will go through.
Psychologists: a “psychologist” has a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree in clinical or counseling psychology, has the most extensive training (5-7 years), and can specialize in a wide range of issues (relationships problems, PTSD, substance abuse, divorce, parenting, career or work problems, adolescent psychology, bipolar, couples therapy, anxiety disorders, etc). Psychologists also frequently do psychological testing.
Counselors: although it is usually interchangeably by many people, a “counselor” has a Masters degree (2-3 years training), is licensed (LC, LPC, LMHC), and specializes in mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, or substance abuse counseling (drug and alcohol). They often identify themselves as “marriage counselor” or “family counselor.” Counselors in Vancouver and the rest of Washington used to have a very easy route to get licensed, but the state has now made it more strict.
Therapists: a “therapist” is a general designation that many types of providers can use, but is not standard terminology beyond people who are licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT), who fit the above description for counselor. Essentially, any mental health provider can call him/herself a “therapist.” You may also see a practitioner refer to him/herself as a “psychotherapist”, which is not a formal type of provider either. So anytime you see someone called a “therapist,” I’d suggest looking closer at what their credentials are.
Psychiatrists: have medical degrees (M.D.) and are trained physicians that specialize in mental health. Many psychiatrists do some limited form of counseling, with some being trained in deeper counseling approaches. Most treat mental health issues through medication.