The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Therapists

What qualities make for an effective therapist? Good listening skills? Yes. Ability to connect and empathize with patients? Sure. A nice person who genuinely cares about you? Absolutely. These qualities may enhance the therapeutic relationship, which is important for healing, but the therapeutic relationship itself does not always translate into recovery, especially for persons with serious mental illnesses. A doctoral degree in psychology, a license to practice, and years of experience in the field indicate that a therapist is qualified, but these things do not guarantee effectiveness.

To put it succinctly, a highly effective therapist is one whose patients get better. Here are the qualities, in my opinion, that highly effective therapists possess.

1. A highly effective therapist conducts a thorough assessment at the start of treatment, including, but not limited to: diagnostic interviews with the patient and her parents (if she is <18), psychosocial / developmental history, family history, medical and psychiatric history, and consultations with the patient’s other treating professionals (e.g., primary care physician, psychiatrist). She synthesizes this information to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. She is cognizant of the multifaceted etiology of mental disorders, and takes into account genetics, biology, temperament, psychosocial issues, environmental factors, lifestyle and behaviors (e.g., stress, sleep, nutrition, exercise) when determining the cause(s) of the patient’s problems. 2. At the end of the initial assessment, a highly effective therapist has an in-depth discussion with the patient, and the parents of minor patients, in which diagnostic impressions are shared. The therapist provides the patient and her family with a scientifically-grounded explanation of her disorder(s) and explains the full range of treatment options available.

3. In collaboration with the patient, and parents of minor patients, the highly effective therapist develops a treatment plan. This treatment plan may consist of services delivered by other professionals (e.g., psychiatrist, pediatrician, dietician) and may consist of one or more modalities of treatment (e.g., individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy). Parental involvement is an integral part of the treatment plan for children and adolescents, except in rare cases when parental involvement may be contraindicated. For adult patients, family members are often included in the treatment plan to participate in family therapy or to play a support role. The highly effective therapist coordinates the patient’s treatment with the other professionals on her treatment team and maintains regular contact with all team members throughout the patient’s course of treatment.

4. A highly effective therapist has training and experience in empirically-supported treatments, such as CBT, DBT, ACT, Maudsley FBT, and IPT. She stays abreast of recent developments in the etiology and treatment of the disorders she treats so that she may better serve her patients. She uses empirically-supported treatments with her patients unless contraindicated.

5. A highly effective therapist is well-prepared and fully present, in body and in mind, with her patients. Therefore, the highly effective therapist is not over-scheduled or over-stressed. She has enough time in her schedule to meet with every patient as often as necessary, including last-minute emergency appointments when needed. She has adequate time to devote to preparing treatment interventions, adequate record keeping, maintaining regular contact with other professionals, and returning patients’ calls and emails in a timely fashion. The highly effective therapist demonstrates respect for her patients’ time by starting and ending appointments promptly and refraining from canceling or rescheduling sessions in the absence of a true emergency. She has sufficient flexibility in her schedule so that, if a patient must cancel a session, she can reschedule the patient within the week. The highly effective therapist devotes her full attention to her patient during sessions by turning off her phone, not responding to emails, and not allowing visitors to knock on the door.

6. A highly effective therapist knows when, and when not, to refer her patients to psychiatrists. She knows which symptoms and disorders usually require medication and which symptoms and disorders can be treated solely with behavioral or psychological interventions. She is conservative in her approach to psychotropic medication and views it as an adjunct to effective psychotherapy. She prefers for her patients to be on medication only when necessary, and on as little medication as necessary for optimal functioning. A psychiatric referral almost always results in medication prescribed. Thus, a highly effective therapist refers patients to psychiatrists only if there is evidence that psychological interventions alone will not be sufficient for recovery. When a psychiatric referral is indicated, a highly effective therapist obtains a signed release of information from the patient to communicate with the psychiatrist. Thereafter, the highly effective therapist maintains communication with the psychiatrist for the duration of the patient’s treatment and is closely involved with decisions to start, stop, and change dosage of the patient’s medications.

7. A highly effective therapist terminates treatment at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. Typically, therapy is over when the patient has reached maximum benefit. Sometimes treatment must be terminated because a patient is not progressing. At this point, the therapist assists the patient in formulating a plan for future care. When it is clear that a patient requires a higher level of care than the therapist can provide (e.g., residential or inpatient treatment), she makes the appropriate referrals and supports the patient in following through with these referrals. She does not allow the patient to settle for a lower level of care than she requires. Regardless of the reason treatment ends, the therapist provides the patient with the opportunity to create meaning out of her therapeutic experience. At the end of treatment, the therapist allows at least two sessions for the patient to reflect on her experience in therapy, the progress that she has made, and the therapeutic relationship.

How to Choose a Therapist

A good therapist is hard to find. I’m new to the field, relatively speaking, and I’ve already encountered a number of horrible therapists as well as many outstanding ones.

Finding a good therapist is trickier than finding a good dentist or gynecologist. Most people choose their healthcare providers based on a three simple factors: proximity to their home or work, whether the provider takes their insurance, and personal recommendations. For most healthcare issues, this works out well. After all, a biannual dental cleaning is a biannual dental cleaning; a pap smear is a pap smear – there’s not a whole lot of variation in how these procedures are done. You can be pretty confident that you’re getting decent care regardless of which doctor you choose. If you don’t like your doctor, no big deal – you only see her once or twice a year, and besides, she takes your insurance and she’s two blocks away from your office! You may opt to switch doctors due to a negative experience with one or a change in insurance coverage, but this is not a big deal either. You just go back to square one and choose someone based on those initial three criteria.

Choosing a therapist is not so simple. Therapists are not interchangeable like dermatologists or orthodontists. The treatment you get with one therapist differs tremendously – in terms of the nature of treatment, the type of treatment, and the quality of treatment – from the treatment you would get with other therapists. The problem is that most people outside the field are not aware of this, and it is difficult to find out what you are getting before you get it. The licensing process does very little to weed out incompetent psychologists. The two written exams we must pass – one based on a general knowledge of psychology and one based on state laws and rules for psychologists – have no predictive validity in determining whether someone is a good therapist. Basically, therapists can do whatever they want in their sessions, so long as it doesn’t violate ethical codes. Therapists are not prohibited from practicing outdated, ineffective treatments. Although research has shown certain psychological treatments to be vastly superior to others for certain disorders, the majority of therapists do not use these empirically-supported treatments.

Choosing a therapist based on proximity alone is not a good idea. The therapist closest to you may not be a good fit for you. Choosing a therapist based on insurance alone is also not a good idea because many therapists don’t take insurance. Further, if you do use your insurance to pay for treatment, the insurance company will likely request a great deal of personal information about your mental health conditions, may discriminate against you based on diagnosis (or lack thereof), and will probably limit the number of sessions you can receive. Getting personal recommendations for therapists is tricky because it involves disclosing at least some personal information to a friend or colleague, and many people are not comfortable doing that. It is not always wise to choose a therapist based on how much experience she has in the field, because many therapists who have been practicing for decades remain entrenched in antiquated theories of mental disorders and practice less effective treatments Also, if you are a young person, it may feel more comfortable to talk to someone closer to your age who can relate to you more easily and who has a better understanding of your generational issues.

So how do you choose a therapist? Well, that depends on why you’re seeking therapy. If you need some support in dealing with normal developmental or social stressors (e.g., death of a friend or family member, relationship issues, stress management, divorce or breakup, difficult transitions), it is helpful to use the following selection criteria:

• A personal recommendation from a trusted friend may be helpful in this case.

• Find someone who has experience dealing with the types of issues you are facing. For example, if your sibling just died, find a therapist who is experienced in working with grief.

• Consider whether you have a preference in terms of your therapist’s gender, ethnicity, age, or sexuality. Many people prefer to work with a therapist of their same gender and/or someone who is close to their age. Many LGBT clients prefer therapists who are openly gay or lesbian, or who have considerable experience working with these populations. Some ethnic minority individuals prefer working with someone who shares their ethnic background. On the other hand, some clients don’t have demographic preferences, and that’s OK too.

• Find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. You may need to have a session or two with the therapist before really being able to tell whether it is a “good fit.” Developing a strong, trusting therapeutic alliance will facilitate the healing process.

• Find a therapist who is a clinical psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT).

When you are seeking treatment for a mental illness, such as major depressive disorder, OCD, anorexia nervosa, PTSD, or borderline personality disorder, I would recommend using a different (and more stringent) set of selection criteria because the stakes are higher. Having a good therapist is a powerful predictor of your chances for recovery, so it is important to take the therapist selection process seriously. Most therapists offer free phone consultations in which you can briefly describe your issues and ask about her qualifications and approach to treatment. I recommend using the following selection criteria in choosing a therapist to treat a mental illness:

• Do as much research as you can on your diagnosis and effective method(s) of treating your particular condition.

• Look for a therapist who specializes in providing evidence-based treatment for your disorder. For example, if you suffer from OCD, you will want to find a therapist who specializes in OCD and practices behavior therapy. You can find out this information by looking on the therapist’s website (if she has one) or simply by calling to ask her about her specialties and her treatment approach.

• Ask the therapist about her views on your particular disorder and the treatment thereof. If her explanation of your illness is unscientific (e.g., “Anxiety disorders are the result of unresolved inner conflicts”) or if her treatment approach sounds flaky or non-directive (e.g., “I provide clients with a safe place in which they can explore their issues”), move on to someone else. It’s great to explore your issues in a safe place, and this may be exactly what you need when struggling with the normal developmental or social stressors described above. If you have a mental illness, however, you’re going to need a whole lot more than that in order to recover.

• Look for a therapist with a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Doctoral level psychologists have 5-7 years of graduate training and supervised clinical practice, plus a post-doctoral residency. Most Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology are extremely selective and have very low acceptance rates (for example, 250 applications for 6 slots). In addition, Ph.D. psychologists have extensive training and experience in scientific research. While a Ph.D. in clinical psychology does not guarantee therapeutic effectiveness, it does reflect a high level of ambition and academic accomplishment, a scientific background, and at least five years of intensive, high-quality training. In contrast, a master’s level therapist such as a social worker (LCSW), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) or marriage and family therapist (MFT) has significantly less clinical training (usually 2 years of graduate school) and very little, if any, training in scientific research. Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MD’s) who focus primarily on prescribing psychotropic medication. Some of them provide psychotherapy in addition to medication, but most do not. Their training is primarily in the practice of medicine, not scientific research or psychotherapy. Most psychiatrists these days have little training in psychotherapy. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If you decide to see a psychiatrist for therapy, make sure she is one of the exceptions.

• University-based mental health clinics and academic medical centers are excellent places to seek psychological treatment. Many of them offer low-cost services or provide treatment for free as part of research studies. The therapists are typically doctoral-level graduate students, pre-doctoral psychology interns, and/or post-doctoral residents, all of whom are closely supervised by licensed clinical psychologists. Advanced graduate students, interns, and post-docs tend to make excellent therapists because they are young, idealistic, energetic, fully informed about recent advances in the research and practice of therapy, well-trained, and constantly evaluated on their performance.

• Find a therapist whose patients actually recover. The proof is in the pudding. Ask the therapist how many patients with your diagnosis she has treated in the past three years, and how many of those patients have fully recovered. If she hems and haws, or describes therapy as a lifelong journey, or claims that one never recovers from your particular disorder, move on to someone else.

• If the therapist is empathic, great. If she’s really nice and makes you feel at ease, wonderful. If you feel very connected to her, fantastic. These qualities are important, but if you are struggling with a mental illness, what matters most is whether she can help you recover. Mental illnesses are treatable and manageable; some are even curable. So don’t mess around with your mental health care. If you had cancer, your priority would not be finding an oncologist who was warm and kind and empathic and emotionally connected to you. These qualities are icing on the cake, but what you need most of all is the cake. And the cake is effective treatment that will cure your cancer. Don’t need to settle for anything less in your mental health care.

Top 10 Mistakes in Mental Health Care

Very early in my blogging career, I wrote about The Top 10 Mistakes in Eating Disorders Treatment. Bad treatment, however, is not limited to eating disorders. Here are the most common mistakes I have observed in the treatment of other mental illnesses:

1. Failure to conduct a thorough assessment at the beginning of treatment. This contributes to missed diagnoses, incorrect diagnoses, and ultimately to ineffective or inappropriate treatment.

2. Failure to assess for behavioral, lifestyle, and environmental factors that may be contributing to the patient’s symptoms. This generally corresponds with the failure to recommend simple lifestyle changes which have a powerful impact on psychological wellbeing. Sleep deprivation, excess alcohol or caffeine intake, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and increased stress at work, school, or home create symptoms that appear identical to those of depression and anxiety. For many people, these symptoms can be alleviated by making behavioral changes. For others, psychotherapy and medication may be necessary.

3. Lack of basic, scientifically-sound education for patients and their families regarding the patient’s disorder(s) and the efficacy of various treatment options. It never ceases to amaze me how many patients and families come to me, after months or years of therapy, without a basic science-based explanation of their mental illness, and without ever being informed that evidence-based treatment exists. Perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon is the patient whose four years of previous therapy focused on the “why” or the “root cause” of her mental disorder without providing any symptom relief. Insight is important, but insight itself does not cure mental illness. These patients are not provided with the simple (and in my mind, very liberating) explanation that mental illnesses are caused by certain biological and genetic vulnerabilities which are often expressed when certain environmental circumstances are present. They are not told that, regardless of the reasons why they developed their illness, they can learn skills to help them manage their symptoms and feel better.

4. Failure to use effective, evidence-based psychological treatments (EBT’s). For the majority of mental illnesses, there is research demonstrating which treatments are most effective. The problem is that the majority of therapists do not use EBT’s. There are several reasons for this: A.) Some therapists have not been trained in evidence-based treatments. This is the result of a three-pronged failure: on the part of the graduate programs which do not teach EBT’s, on the part of the therapists who do not take the initiative to keep up with the literature or seek out the proper continuing education courses, and on the part of the state licensing boards, which do not require that therapists learn about or practice EBTs. B.) Some therapists have been trained in EBT’s but choose not to use them because they value their own clinical judgment more than they value science. This is faulty logic, because research shows that statistical prediction consistently outperforms clinical judgment. Translation: therapists are far more effective when they select their interventions on the basis of scientific research (e.g., what works best for most people with this particular disorder) rather than using their own judgment to decide how to help a patient. C.) Some therapists protest: “But EBT’s don’t work for everyone.” Well, of course they don’t. Nothing works for everyone. But if research consistently shows that treatment A is effective for 80% of people with OCD, while treatment B is effective for 25% of people with OCD, and treatment C is based upon a psychological theory but has never been studied scientifically, it’s a no brainer. Use treatment A with OCD patients unless you have a specific, convincing reason not to. It makes no logical, mathematical, ethical, or scientific sense to do otherwise.

5. Insufficient amount or intensity of psychological treatment. Sessions may begin too late in the course of a mental illness; sessions may be held less frequently than needed; treatment may be terminated before the patient is fully recovered; patients may not receive the level of care (e.g., hospitalization, residential treatment, day treatment) that they need in order to recover. Financial issues and insurance limits are largely to blame for this problem. However, our attitudes about mental illness and personal autonomy play a major role as well. I don’t believe in the “least restrictive environment” criterion. I do not believe that a person should have to be imminently suicidal, homicidal, or floridly psychotic to warrant inpatient treatment. I do not believe that residential and day treatment programs should be reserved for those who have had multiple failed attempts at outpatient treatment. I believe that providing intensive, aggressive treatment at initial diagnosis (which often requires more than your typical weekly therapy sessions) would greatly reduce the severity and duration of mental illnesses.

6. Focusing on “underlying issues” rather than symptoms early in treatment. It makes no sense to do intensive psychotherapy with a drug addict while she is high or while she is actively using drugs. Her mental state is too compromised for her to do meaningful psychological work, and the psychological work detracts time and attention away from the most glaring, life-threatening problem: the drug use. This patient would need to go through detox and rehab before she could really benefit from psychotherapy. Similarly, if a person is severely depressed, severely anxious, or engaging in self-injurious behavior, it makes no sense to spend the therapy hour processing inner conflicts or exploring childhood memories. She cannot think rationally or process emotional information accurately while such acute symptoms are present. The first step must be to alleviate the symptoms. To do otherwise simply serves to delay her recovery and prolong her misery.

7. Failure to address underlying issues, if they exist, later in treatment. Once symptoms are under control, it is important to assess for and treat any underlying issues which could make the patient vulnerable to relapse. I do not mean to imply that every patient has deep, dark secrets of trauma or major internal conflicts. Many patients have simpler underlying problems, such as poor communication skills, unhelpful relationship patterns, low self-esteem, perfectionism, unhealthy core beliefs, or overly stressful jobs or home lives. Regardless of the nature of the patient’s issues, they must be treated if the patient is to heal fully and maintain a lasting recovery. Disclaimer: It is a huge mistake for therapists to presume that all patients have serious underlying issues that must be addressed in treatment. This assumption leads to endless exploration of the past, digging around for some buried treasure that often does not exist. This can be a waste of time and money, can lead to over-focus on the past at the exclusion of full engagement in the present, and can actually make patients feel worse. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

8. Over-prescribing, or inappropriately prescribing, psychotropic medication. A lot of this has to do with insurance companies and financial issues: it is cheaper to medicate than to treat holistically with psychological therapy, at least in the short term. We know that for many mental illnesses, certain evidence-based psychological treatments are more effective than medications (i.e., DBT for borderline personality disorder, CBT, ACT, and exercise for mild to moderate depression, exposure and response prevention for OCD, behavior therapy for panic disorder, CBT-E for bulimia nervosa). And yet many patients are medicated for these illnesses without being offered psychological treatment, and without being informed that certain psychological treatments for certain conditions are actually superior to medication. Recent statistics show that 80% of prescriptions for psychotropic medications are written by general care physicians (internists and pediatricians). This appalls me. While GPs are allowed to prescribe psychotropic medication, they lack specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The ideal situation is for a psychiatrist to prescribe the psychotropic medication, follow up with the patient regularly to monitor her response to the medication, and remain in close contact with the patient’s GP and therapist in order to ensure seamless coordination of care.

9. Failure to involve family members in a young patient’s treatment. Yes, the primary developmental task of adolescence is separation / individuation. But this developmental reality in no way precludes involving family members in an adolescent’s treatment. I believe that a child or adolescent’s treatment works best when family members are fully informed and actively involved. The patient may be with the therapist for 1 hour a week, but she is with her family for the other 167 hours. Therapists are most effective when they strengthen a family unit (rather than weakening it by pointing the finger of blame), communicate openly with parents (rather than hiding behind the cloak of confidentiality), and provide them with tools to help their children (rather than urging them to back off). Therapy is temporary; family is forever.

10. Blaming patients, either subtly or overtly, for their mental illnesses. This causes so much harm. Many therapists are of the opinion that if patients just tried a little harder, dug a little deeper, or stayed in therapy just a few months (or years) longer, they would get better. Patients are often held responsible for their own lack of therapeutic progress (Remember the old joke – “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change”). As a result, patients blame themselves when they do not recover. Guilt is paralyzing and depressing and disempowering. In what other illness would a patient be held responsible for her lack of improvement? Obviously, therapy is a collaborative process which requires tremendous courage and dedication from the patient. That said, the therapist is responsible for providing the patient with effective treatment and guiding her towards recovery.