Therapy is tremendously helpful for managing bipolar disorder. But finding the right therapist can feel daunting.
Where do you start? How do you know when you’ve found the right one, or when it’s time to see someone new?
Read on for concrete tips on finding the right therapist for you.
First, “be proud of yourself for reaching out,” says Melissa Hochbaum Strauss, LPC, a therapist on Maven, a virtual clinic for women’s and family health. You’re taking a powerful step toward your mental health, and it’s important to acknowledge that.
When finding a therapist as part of bipolar disorder treatment, you should consider all your options. If possible, interview several clinicians before making your decision, and try the following strategies during your search:
Ask for a referral
If you have a primary care physician or another doctor you trust, ask them to suggest several therapists. They may even know someone who has experience treating bipolar disorder.
“[Doctors typically] have a network of providers they know and can likely recommend a starting point,” says Silvi Saxena, MSW, LSW, a social worker and clinical trauma professional who specializes in anxiety, depression, and emotional regulation.
Contact a clinic or medical center
Check whether nearby medical centers have an outpatient psychiatry or counseling department.
If you’re looking for a lower-cost option, try a training clinic at a college or university. Student therapists are closely supervised by licensed clinicians and professors.
Check with patient organizations
Ask your local mental health association for therapist recommendations, or search directories from these national organizations:
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
- National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI)
- International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF)
You can also consider joining a support group for bipolar disorder and asking members for local recommendations or online options.
Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, suggests asking prospective therapists about their approach to treating bipolar disorder. “Make sure they’re familiar with evidence-based practices and… [that they’re] an advocate for medication,” she says.
While there’s no single approach to treating bipolar disorder, medication can be a powerful tool to help manage your symptoms, including mood changes, seizures, and manic episodes, according to NAMI.
If medication is part of your treatment plan — and it likely will be — it’s vital that your therapist supports you in taking it and provides strategies to help you stick with your plan.
In sum, you might want to ask a potential therapist:
- What types of therapies do you use to treat bipolar disorder?
- Do you think medication is important?
- How do you typically work with people who have bipolar disorder?
“Bipolar disorder is a biologically based illness that responds well to medication, stress management, and sleep hygiene,” notes Kennedy.
Several types of therapies include elements that can help with these aspects. Examples include:
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps you identify and change unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors, as well as find solutions for coping with symptoms.
- Family focused therapy. This type teaches you and your loved ones to better understand your symptoms and triggers and develop a plan for preventing and reducing episodes.
- Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy. This therapy involves creating healthy routines around sleep and other areas that may trigger your symptoms, as well as improving your relationships.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy. This is a type of CBT that specifically focuses on emotion. It involves individual and group therapy to help you manage strong emotions, severe depressive episodes, and suicidal thoughts.
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Each person’s needs and preferences are different. You may find that a therapist recommended to you isn’t the right match, and that’s OK.
In addition to having experience working with people with bipolar disorder, the following qualities are good signs to look for in a therapist.
Is willing to work with others
It’s important for your therapist to be willing to collaborate with other providers, says Kennedy.
“For example, suppose you have medical issues or adverse side effects from bipolar medications. In that case, your therapist must be open to collaborating with your psychiatrist or primary care doctor on a treatment plan that works for you,” she says.
Sees therapy as a partnership
Therapy is most helpful when you and your therapist are on the same page, working toward the same goals. When looking for a therapist or starting to work with one, ask yourself:
- Has the therapist asked about my goals?
- Do they respond to my questions and concerns?
- Do they ask for my opinion and perspective?
- Does therapy feel like a collaboration between the two of us?
- Does the therapist act like an authority figure or seem offended or closed off when I ask questions?
Is fully engaged in therapy
To make sure your therapist is fully engaged, Strauss suggests looking for these signs:
- They make eye contact and lean toward you when you speak.
- They remember information you’ve shared in the past.
- They genuinely listen to what you have to say.
- They engage with your family or caregivers, if they’re involved.
Exudes empathy and trust
According to Kennedy, positive outcomes in therapy occur when therapists have compassion, empathy, and respect for their clients.
In her clinical experience, clients who see benefits in their mental health also trust their therapists and believe they have their best interest in mind.
How do you know when it’s time to find a new therapist? According to Saxena, it might be time to switch when you feel like:
- you’re not getting much out of therapy
- you’re not growing
- your expectations aren’t being met or even addressed
Therapists who aren’t a good fit for you may:
- seem distracted and like their focus is elsewhere
- routinely forget important things you’ve said about yourself, your experiences, or your goals
- make judgmental, sarcastic, or inappropriate comments
In addition, “You don’t want a therapist who will immediately jump down the rabbit hole of treating other mental health symptoms simultaneously,” such as trauma or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), says Kennedy.
While you might have other concerns, she says, the first priority for people with bipolar disorder should be stabilizing mania, hypomania, or depression.
Strauss also suggests thinking about how you feel before, during, and after a session. Therapy can be tough, especially when you’re talking about painful topics or changing deeply ingrained habits or thought patterns. So, it’s natural to feel nervous or upset some of the time.
But if you’re constantly feeling terrible, dismissed, or uncomfortable, it’s time to see a different therapist — or raise the issue with your current one. Clearly communicating your concerns gives your therapist feedback, says Strauss.
In turn, they might switch gears and try a new approach that proves helpful. Or, Strauss says, your therapist might help you find a new therapist and discuss what to look for in your search.
It may take interviewing several mental health professionals who work with people with bipolar disorder before you find the right therapist for your needs.
When making your choice, look for a therapist who will collaborate with you and your family, if necessary, on a comprehensive treatment plan. This includes supporting you in taking medication, stabilizing your symptoms, reducing stress, and addressing your personal triggers.
If you haven’t found the right therapist for you, try not to get discouraged. As Saxena points out, “There is a therapist for everyone, so keep looking.”
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