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Good Yelp is Hard to Find

You're trying to find a great mental health provider. Can reading online reviews help?

Finding your ideal mental health provider is not easy. It’s a deeply personal matchmaking process that falls, on the stressful relationship spectrum, somewhere between a blind date and a job interview. Among

the many factors to consider are: interpersonal chemistry, gut-level comfort, logistical convenience, professional training and approach, as well as affordability. How exactly do you find “the one”? You: seeking a trained professional you feel safe with, and with whom, over time, you might work through important issues and experience significant breakthroughs. Your ideal mental health provider? Simply, he or she is looking for clients with whom to have a productive therapeutic relationship. From a mental health care provider’s perspective, marketing is extremely tricky. Whether it’s online or on paper, a therapist must strike a balance between providing simple facts about training and skills while remaining approachable to the many kinds of people who might seek help. Therapists work really hard to gain qualifications and professional certificates to meet the basic government requirements just to work with you. They also pursue additional education to treat different issues that are based on their personal interests and goals. Each step along the way adds more complicated-sounding words and letters.

Depending on your own familiarity and education level, all of those words can become more of a barrier than a warm invitation. If you’ve ever cold-searched online for a therapist or psychiatrist, you already know that understanding a provider's background can be like eating a thick, tasteless bowl of alphabet soup, spiced with stale jargon and garnished with mystery acronyms. You want someone with sound qualifications; you also want them to be nice. The person with the most letters is not better than the one with whom you feel comfortable.

Let’s go ahead assume you’ve already done your homework and gotten recommendations from your primary care doctor. Maybe you’ve contacted a local university, or the chapter of a professional association. Maybe friends or family have given you some names based on their own positive experiences. Let’s say you’ve gone so far as to narrow down your list, and you don’t (yet!) have a clear preference about which one is “the one.” The logical next step? You’re going to turn to the Internet, right? Right! However, there are a few things you should understand about the value of what you might find there, specifically when it comes to a mental health provider.

The main way that mental health care recommendations online are different than other online reviews is that you will never know another side of the story.

You already know that online reviews can be extremely subjective and are limited to one person’s experience on what might have been a really bad day. This is true for restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and other service-oriented businesses, and it’s especially true in mental health care. The main way that mental health care recommendations online are different than other online reviews is that you will never know another side of the story. Because of the ethical standards of licensed professionals, not to mention Federal health care privacy laws, health care providers must maintain strict confidentiality. While reviewers online may freely reveal their identity and personal circumstances to the world, providers cannot. Providers aren’t even allowed to say whether someone ever contacted or set foot in their office, much less whether the reviewer in question stuck around long enough to make an informed or accurate opinion. Conversely, you'll never know whether the provider stuck with the reviewer through a long, exhausting history of thick and thin, listened empathically, or asked important questions.

Also, mental health care providers are set apart from other businesses and services by a plain truth of life: Sometimes, it feels worse before it feels better. When we visit a museum, hire a mechanic, or get a haircut, we expect a certain degree of gratification, comfort, and norms of etiquette. We may even expect that we, the customer, are always right. But when we seek out a professional who is trained to help us recognize limiting beliefs and behaviors, we’re there to grow. We ought to be prepared for the possibility of sensitive, uncomfortable, even painful “a-ha” moments. One would hope that the story doesn’t end there, that the discomfort leads, eventually, to awareness and greater happiness…unless, of course, we huff off, leaving only a trail of nasty online breadcrumbs behind us, reducing a complex experience down to one snapshot moment.

For the patient, in matters of mental health and elsewhere, it's so important to consider the source of the information you read online. If you’ve already gotten recommendations and are just trying to narrow it down to “the one,” online reviews like these are likely to be overgeneralized and possibly unhelpful. When a former patient of some length of time declares that an office or therapist is globally “terrible,” it doesn’t mean that your patient experience with the location, the office staff, the provider, the insurance copay—will be the same. It’s possible, but also worthy of skepticism.

In the end, you absolutely need to trust your own selection process and intuition when choosing a mental health provider. You should expect it to take time, and to feel confused before you feel sure. But you should expect to feel sure at some point. If a relationship with a provider isn’t working, it’s best to at least make the attempt to address it directly with the provider. The conversation about your perspective may turn out to be clarifying and productive for you, even more so than writing an online review could ever be.

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