How to Find and Choose the Right Addiction Therapist

Young woman playing computerCongratulations! You’ve made one of the best decisions you can make: asking for help. Whether you’ve decided to get help to control or moderate your use of alcohol or substances, or whether you’ve decided you want to be entirely abstinent, or whether you just want to explore the role that addiction might play in connection to an underlying depression, anxiety, stress, or self-esteem issue, you are being proactive in trying to find someone who can help you. Acknowledging that you need help is never easy, but it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Finding the right addiction therapist is just as important as making the decision to get help.

Before determining whether the treatment provider is “expert” enough, you have to decide what type of practitioner you would like to consult. Addiction treatment often involves working with a combination of professionals. Probably the most comprehensive place to start would be to meet with an addiction psychologist for a complete evaluation. However, there are several other types of therapists with the necessary and sufficient experience to get you on your way. It is important to know the differences between these sorts of treatment providers.

People often will begin their search for addiction treatment by consulting an “addiction psychiatrist” or “addiction psychologist.” In actuality, these are two very different kinds of professionals. Knowing the difference is essential. Furthermore, the professions of psychotherapist, social worker, and counselor all have different specialties, and their focus and breadth of treatment can vary considerably. In most instances, their credentials are much less important compared to their experience and the connection you can establish with them. Most therapists would likely agree that the most curative factor in the psychotherapeutic relationship is the rapport that develops between therapist and person in therapy. So while you’re looking for someone you can afford, you are also looking for someone with whom you can connect.

What Is an Addiction Psychiatrist?

An addiction psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating people with addictive and mental health issues primarily with medicines such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and medications that help to treat underlying mental health conditions and comorbid issues. While there are many psychiatrists who don’t prescribe medications much and focus primarily on therapy instead, most psychiatrists manage medications and work closely with psychologists and other therapists who will provide the talk therapy treatment. Subsequent psychiatric appointments following an evaluation tend to be short, about 20- to 25-minute med checks; they are mostly concerned with how a person is adjusting to a drug regimen, minimizing side effects, and gauging effectiveness.

Most importantly, an addiction psychiatrist has special training in prescribing medications to help individuals who are struggling with their substance use. It is important to work with an addiction psychiatrist and not just a general psychiatrist when you are trying to determine the nature of your relationship with drugs and alcohol and considering making behavioral changes. An addiction psychiatrist can prescribe medications to help you detox or withdraw from drug and alcohol use, and they can also prescribe medications to help you with cravings, which could avert relapse.

What Is an Addiction Psychologist?

An addiction psychologist, on the other hand, is a doctor but not a medical doctor. Addiction psychologists are trained mental health professionals who can help you explore the role that addiction plays in your life. An addiction psychologist can help you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and teach you different ways of dealing with problems through therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, 12-step facilitation treatment, and community reinforcement and family training.

Additionally, addiction psychologists let you talk your way through a problem and help you get to the heart of the issue so you can make the necessary changes that will improve your life for the long haul, and not just put a bandage on a major wound. A typical appointment with a psychologist is 50 to 55 minutes.

Other Professionals Who Can Help

There are other types of addiction therapists in addition to psychologists who might be helpful, including social workers and licensed professional counselors. Social workers may have their master’s or doctorate, while licensed professional counselors may have only a master’s-level education, though both are trained in mental health issues to varying degrees. Social workers in particular are trained in obtaining the best social agency support services, and they tend to take a social and networking approach to the treatment of mental health issues.

Psychotherapists may have any of the above degrees or none at all. A psychotherapist is sometimes a catch-all for someone who practices talk therapy, but the therapist may or may not be adequately trained according to the standards of another professional degree or certificate. For example, a psychiatrist or psychologist may describe themselves as a psychotherapist, but so too can a recovery coach or Joe Shmoe because he’s been a “spiritual advisor” ever since he was electrocuted while trying to repair his garage door. That said, many psychotherapists do receive comprehensive training, but it is important that you vet their experience, training, and credentials, as you should with any other therapist. (GoodTherapy.org does this work on your behalf as it has strict educational and training requirements for membership.)

Certified addiction counselors and certified alcohol and drug counselors are just a few of the titles bestowed to professionals who are counselors but not at the educational or academic level of psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers. Often, these titles vary slightly according to state board guidelines, which can be somewhat less standardized from state to state. They may be no less qualified to treat you, but it is important to see someone who is licensed in his or her professional field. Ideally, your clinician would be qualified as both an addiction counselor and as a licensed mental health professional.

Finding the Right Addiction Therapist

Now that you know the differences between professionals, let’s talk about how to find the right addiction therapist for you. There are two common ways to find a psychiatrist and/or psychologist: (1) research local addiction professionals online, or (2) identify an addiction therapist who is recommended to you by another professional, friend, or family member. Both are perfectly legitimate ways to begin your search for the best match.

Once you think you have found someone, follow these steps to determine if they are competent, credible, and a good match for you. First and foremost, check their credentials to see if they are who they say they are. Make sure they have the associated degree of the professional discipline you personally are looking for. The professional you go to should be licensed, and the license should be up to date and clearly indicated on his or her website or profile listing.

If you think you found someone but they end up not being the right match for you, do not give up hope. It may be important to explain very clearly to this person what it is that you feel you are not getting.

Secondly, whether you want to see an addiction psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or psychotherapist, you should determine what expertise the person has in the field of addiction. This can be daunting because, across disciplines, there is no standardized way of determining one’s expertise in addiction. For example, while psychiatrists can be board certified in addiction medicine, addiction psychologists might obtain their proficiency by having (1) additional certification as a certified alcohol and drug counselor, (2) by being a member of the American Psychological Association Division 50 Society of Addiction Psychology, or (3) by having conducted research and published articles on addiction. Moreover, addiction counselors may have a certification through a state board, yet they may lack the background and training that a psychologist receives in mental health issues. This is important because half of all individuals who are diagnosed with a lifetime prevalence of addiction will also be diagnosed with a lifetime prevalence of another comorbid mental health diagnosis. Furthermore, one might not want to see a psychiatrist who specializes in medication management and may not have as much training and experience in the various treatments involving the talk therapies.

Third, check reviews online. There are excellent therapists who don’t yet have reviews online, perhaps because they haven’t had an online presence or because it’s just not ethical to ask for reviews. Many psychotherapists will have colleagues write reviews for them, which is a helpful way of getting recommendations. One bad review can affect someone’s listing significantly, so look carefully at all the reviews to be fair.

Fourth, review the professional’s website and other sites where their practice might be listed to see that they offer “evidenced-based” or “best practices” treatment. While these buzzwords have quite frankly become passé and obsolete as they have been co-opted by marketers, you want to be sure that your therapist at least knows about the most up-to-date evidenced-based treatment approaches. Ask what treatment the professional uses that is evidenced-based, or ask for an opinion on something you’ve learned about, like harm reduction, 12-step facilitation, motivational interviewing, or mindfulness-based stress reduction or relapse prevention.

Fifth, have a phone conversation to see if you feel some sort of connection to your addiction therapist. This may be a feeling of confidence or an inexplicable bond of initial trust, but in either case, feeling secure with your addiction therapist is crucial. It is completely appropriate to say you are shopping for a therapist and that you’d like to speak on the phone to ask some questions or let the person know what is going on to see if it even makes sense to set up an appointment. This also allows the therapist to gauge whether you’re a good fit for him or her, and if not, to offer a referral.

Sixth, make a follow-up appointment where you can meet the person face-to-face and see if your initial instinct was correct. It is also reasonable to meet once or twice before you decide whether to commit to working with the person while you develop a treatment plan together. Remember, most importantly, you are looking for someone you connect with. You and the professional should both believe that the therapist can help. You are looking for someone you can afford, someone with whom you can feel comfortable, and someone you believe can help you.

If you’re lucky, you may get all these steps right on the first try, but many people do not. If you think you found someone, but they end up not being the right match for you, do not give up hope. It may be important to explain very clearly to this person what it is that you feel you are not getting. Often, the difficult experience you are having with the therapist is related to the reason you are in therapy to begin with. In other words, the conflict or problems you are having with your therapist may be the sorts of problems you have in other relationships and could be driving addictive or compulsive behaviors, and now you have an opportunity to work through those issues with a therapist who is trained to help you see your role in the relationship and in other, more important relationships. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about yourself.

If your therapist shies away from this sort of dialogue, they will not be helpful to you. Sometimes, the match is just not right and you have to find another therapist. The right person is out there; you just might have to work a little harder to find that person.

Conclusion

In summary, because addiction treatment is a unique field, it is essential that your addiction therapist have a solid background in mental health and not just expertise in addiction. Since many of those with a substance use issue in their lifetime will also meet the criteria for another mental health condition, it is clear that these comorbid conditions are interrelated and may fuel each other. This is why it is so important that your therapist be an expert in both domains. When you seek help for addiction, you may experience issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, attention-deficit hyperactivity, and relationship problems. Addiction therapists who are not licensed, such as recovery coaches and interventionists, can have an important role, but only when mental health professionals who are licensed are supervising and quarterbacking the treatment.

Once you’ve found an addiction therapist who is a good fit and you begin to understand your addiction issues—medical, psychological, and otherwise—you may feel as if a big weight has been lifted off of your shoulders. While most individuals considering stopping or reducing their drug or alcohol use are loath to imagine their lives without the use of alcohol or drugs, many recovering individuals report that their lives are vastly improved and that that their worst days in recovery are far better than their best days using.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Frank, PhD, CAC, therapist in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 27 comments
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  • Lila

    Lila

    July 23rd, 2015 at 8:02 AM

    Can you have a meeting with someone first to decide if you think that this person would be a good fit for you? Sort of like an interview?

  • Meredith

    Meredith

    July 23rd, 2015 at 4:08 PM

    You should ask around, talk to others whom you know have been through the therapy process and see who they could recommend. Sometimes someone may look great on paper, but hearing from a friend or someone who has been through the experience personally can be a great way to find that one person who is going to understand what you are going through and who could become your lifeline throughout this tough process.

  • jon

    jon

    July 24th, 2015 at 7:44 AM

    So how do you know which illness to treat first? Like say if someone is depressed but also has addiction issues then how do you know which came first or which might be causing the other, or even if one has anything to do with the other.

  • Lance

    Lance

    July 24th, 2015 at 12:36 PM

    Well on this site could be a good place to start. Isn’t there a place here which can help you find a therapist in your area?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    July 24th, 2015 at 7:09 PM

    If you would like to consult with mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

  • Patricia

    Patricia

    July 25th, 2015 at 7:15 AM

    I am not too sure that there are enough people giving this enough thought. I think that there are those who are thinking that this person is a professional so we can make this work out ad they can help me.
    While this is true for some in other cases this is far from the truth. For many there has to be this development of a relationship where they can feel comfortable enough to begin the healing process, and when that is not there there will be no improvement.

  • Jeremy Frank PhD Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor

    Jeremy Frank PhD Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor

    July 25th, 2015 at 12:39 PM

    A few responses to the comments. Yes you can definitely have an interview with any therapist to see if you are a good fit. It usually takes a face to face session in order to do that. Do not feel bad if you decide not to go back to them. We’re used to it. How do you know which illness to treat first? That’s a great question. I had a “chicken or the egg” session just this past week. That means we spent our time trying to decide was the client’s alcohol drinking affected the marriage or was the unhappiness in the marriage causing him to drink too much. It’s important to spend time thinking about and talking about these things in session. That is the therapy. The best overall answer to your question though is you treat both. Most of us can be diagnosed with, “Chinese Menu Syndrome.” That is the idea that when you go out to eat Chinese food in the U.S at least, we order a little of this and a little of that and a little more of this… In addiction work, someone often has some social anxiety, some withdrawal and maybe some marital conflict. It all needs to be treated and which we treat first depends on you and the therapist and how you prioritize things and what will reduce harm presently. It’s hard to get anywhere in therapy if you are using a lot of drugs or alcohol so in some ways you want to treat that first but if someone is medicating a depression through substances you also want to address the depression first or simultaneously. Many of the treatments for depression are the same as for addiction so in many ways it doesn’t matter so much because the important thing is that we just get the treatment started. Jeremy Frank PHD CADC Addiction Psychologist Philadelphia PA.

  • Margie

    Margie

    July 26th, 2015 at 4:26 PM

    I have seen some websites where people give reviews and stuff but I never know if they are legit or not. Any thoughts on that?

  • Jasmine R

    Jasmine R

    July 27th, 2015 at 6:56 AM

    I am kind of like Margie. With those reviews you just never know if they are for real, or if they have hired someone to pike on with reviews on their website to get them boosted in searching, or on the flip side if they are just someone with a beef and they want to air it all online!

  • Jeremy Frank PhD CAC

    Jeremy Frank PhD CAC

    July 27th, 2015 at 2:25 PM

    Therapist Reviews: The problem with reviews and testimonials is that it’s unethical according to most therapist professions to ask for reviews because it exerts and undue influence over the client in that the client may feel that he or she has to give a good review in order to be treated better. A therapist can get around this by asking colleagues to review the therapist’s practice and to write recommendations which I believe can be helpful. In this case, a therapist would have to have enough colleagues who trust and believe in that therapist in order to give those reviews. I would question a therapist who had client testimonials on their website or especially one who had too many of those out there in cyber space. If those reviews are from colleagues or students or people that consulted with the the therapist but were not actual clients than at least we can know that the therapist is good at protecting confidentiality. That said, the ethics code changed recently for psychologists and some other therapeutic helping professions in the last few years to reflect this changing technology where so many people do write and rely on reviews on line and it is now not unethical to have testimonials on one’s website. This can make it confusing to know what a client consumer should look for in reviews and would probably lead one to conclude not to put too much stock in reviews and testimonials in general.

  • rosa

    rosa

    July 27th, 2015 at 2:26 PM

    I think that I have an addiction to food, maybe binge eating, and I am looking for something, or someone who can help me break that cycle. I am scared that this kind of behavior is going to damage my health and I know that it has already taken a toll on men mentally as well as with my weight. Eating starts to feel like it gets out of control for me, it is like the only two modes that I know are either starving myself or bingeing. I know that I need help, but I am pretty ashamed of my behavior and don’t even know where to start looking for help. Any pointers would be greatly appreciated because this cycle is seriously sucking the very enjoyment out of life for me.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    July 27th, 2015 at 7:53 PM

    If you would like to consult with mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

  • Jack

    Jack

    July 28th, 2015 at 8:42 AM

    I think that I would feel much more comfortable working with someone who did not go the treatment route with medications

  • Christopher

    Christopher

    July 29th, 2015 at 12:06 PM

    I am assuming that at any point in time you started to feel uncomfortable with the treatment then you could pursue something else, but then that would leave me to wonder if I was experiencing the discomfort because of how hard it is to cope with the withdrawal or because it is bringing up memories that are hard to deal with… or if you are feeling a lot of that how soon is too soon to look elsewhere?

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    August 1st, 2015 at 12:55 AM

    I found this article to be very unhelpful. Therapy is a business, just like most other things. People buy likes on Facebook or ask friends or colleagues to write reviews for them but have they then self ever been the client? I hope not considering that would be unethical. Someone may be a great friend or colleague but they are not the client. I don’t think searching for a therapist online is the best decision. Many of my friends have actually found some to be unethical, even the ones who write articles. It’s actually quite sad. I would recommend asking a friend/family member/someone in the program/a trusted treatment faculty for the names of some people who think would help you. Sure someone may sound great online but be careful is all I’m saying. Therapy is a business, the website, the business cards, Facebook pages etc. There are corrupt people in every line of work.

  • Marc

    Marc

    August 12th, 2015 at 8:40 PM

    Why do you feature inappropriate therapists Good Therapy?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 13th, 2015 at 8:52 AM

    Hi Marc,

    Thank you for your comment. If you know of a therapist listed with GoodTherapy.org who has had their license revoked or suspended, please email support@goodtherapy.org to let us know about it right away! If you have an experience with unethical therapy, it is very important that you report the therapist to the appropriate licensing board. If/when the therapist’s licence is compromised, please let us know immediately so we can respond to the matter.

    Thank you again!
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Kendall R

    Kendall R

    August 9th, 2016 at 9:53 AM

    I think it would be super beneficial for a substance abuser to seek help. That way they don’t have to try quitting alone. I would think that would be super hard for anyone really. Having another there to help you through would be much better!

  • Jasper W.

    Jasper W.

    November 14th, 2016 at 4:08 PM

    I agree that it is important to check the certifications and licenses of the counselor. It would be comforting to choose someone who has experience and success helping people get through challenges similar to yours. I have heard that in many cases, the counselor is someone who has overcome these struggles as well.

  • Cindy T

    Cindy T

    January 4th, 2017 at 9:35 AM

    Thanks for pointing out that most psychiatrists manage medications and work closely with others that provide the talk therapy. You also said that the following appointments tend to be short. I think it’s important to choose a child psychologist that takes the time to make your child feel comfortable and confident.

  • Johnny M.

    Johnny M.

    January 25th, 2017 at 4:47 PM

    I like that you said that some people can help you control your thoughts. It is so important to find the right professional to help you. My brother suffers addiction and depression. Do you have any tips for me as I help him find the right counselor for his situation?

  • gloria d

    gloria d

    May 31st, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    Checking a therapist’s credentials seems like a really good first step. I would imagine that you would need to consider their licensing and training to find someone who is right for you. My sister is looking for an addiction therapist for her son so she’ll have to find someone who is well credentialed.

  • Tammie H.

    Tammie H.

    November 9th, 2017 at 6:35 PM

    My cousin has recently come to a realization that he is a drug dependent, and now he wants to put a stop to it. I can agree with you that acknowledging the situation was not easy, but it’s the first step to curing the problem. The least I can do is help him out by looking for a therapist or doctor that will give him the guidance he needs. Thanks for sharing these ideas! I appreciate it.

  • Maria H

    Maria H

    December 4th, 2017 at 6:46 PM

    I like your suggestion about how you can make a phone call to the addiction therapist that you’re interested in to see if there will be any sort of connection and security that you can feel while talking to the therapist. My husband is suffering from substance addiction, and it’s important for me to find a professional that can help him to cope up with what he’s currently facing. For me, it’s crucial to find a therapist that can make my husband feel comfortable and secured so he can easily open up about the reasons that drive his addiction. I will make sure to consider all your tips.

  • Latoya A.

    Latoya A.

    March 21st, 2018 at 9:50 PM

    I do like that you suggested having a phone conversation with the addiction therapist that you’re interested in so you can see if you will feel some sort of connection with them which is crucial to confidently trust them. My nephew confessed to me that he is suffering from substance abuse. It’s important for me to help find a therapist that he can comfortably share all his struggles and conditions with to make sure that the proper treatment is going to be provided to him. Thanks for sharing all your tips.

  • pinkcity royals

    pinkcity royals

    March 27th, 2018 at 4:42 AM

    What fascinates me about addiction and obsessive behavior is that people would choose an altered state of consciousness that’s toxic and ostensibly destroys most aspects of your normal life, because for a brief moment you feel okay.

  • Ava M.

    Ava M.

    May 2nd, 2018 at 5:49 PM

    I like that you suggested meeting the addiction therapist that you’re considering in person so you can see if you’ll be able to connect with them. My nephew is currently looking to be treated because he’s addicted to substance abuse. He wants to help himself, and it’s important for him to choose a substance abuse therapist that he can get along well with to make his treatment become more effective and more motivating. Thanks!

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