Tips for Choosing the Right Therapist for Bipolar Disorder

How to start the search for a therapist and questions to help you choose the right therapist.

Medically reviewed in May 2020

Bipolar disorder is one of the most prevalent mood disorders in America. With many people undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or underdiagnosed, exact numbers are difficult to pin down. But data published by the National Comorbidity Survey Replication estimate that between 4 and 5 percent of adult Americans experience bipolar disorder at some point.

There are several subtypes of bipolar disorder, which all involve changes in mood—such as episodes of depression and mania—as well as changes in energy and activity levels. Sometimes there are periods of relative stability between. Symptoms vary depending on the type of bipolar disorder, and the severity of symptoms can vary from one person to the next.

Bipolar disorder can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life, including relationships, education, employment, and physical health. It is important for people with bipolar disorder to seek treatment from a healthcare provider that specializes in mental health disorders. Treatment typically involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

Types of therapy
Mental health professionals have different levels of training and different areas of expertise—psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers can all provide therapy and counseling for people with bipolar disorders. Medications, however, must be prescribed by a psychiatrist, who has a medical degree and a license to practice medicine.

Psychotherapy is also referred to as “talk therapy.” There are numerous types of psychotherapy, and different types work better for different people. Some therapy approaches that are used to treat bipolar disorder include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where patients work with a therapist to adjust patterns of thinking, address fears, and prepare for problematic situations.
  • Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT), which focuses on routines, sleep patterns, and addressing interpersonal issues.
  • Family Focused Therapy (FFT), where both the patient and the patient’s family members work with a therapist to improve communication and problem solving.

These are three examples, and there are other types of therapy. It is important to keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating bipolar disorder—different patients have different needs, and the choice of both therapy and therapist should reflect a person’s individual needs.

Finding a therapist
There are a number of ways to go about finding a therapist:

  • Recommendations from your healthcare provider.
  • State and county agencies, which may list mental health services on their websites.
  • Employee assistance programs, which may offer counseling or referrals.
  • Counseling services through a school or university.
  • If you are insured, your health insurance company’s website should have a listing of providers in your area.
  • An internet search for “find a therapist” should also provide some leads.

Choosing a therapist
Once you have a therapist in mind or a list of potential therapists, there are a few things you will want to consider:

  • What type of therapy do they offer?
  • What type of training, education, and years of experience do they have? Are they licensed to practice therapy?
  • Do they have experience treating people with similar challenges to your own?
  • What type of treatment do they recommend for you? Does the treatment plan make sense?
  • How did you feel after talking to the therapist?
  • What is the cost and do they accept your insurance?
  • Depending on the patient’s age, do they have expertise in working with juvenile or elderly patients?
  • What are the goals of therapy, what is the timeframe for those goals, and how will progress be measured?

One of the most important things to consider is how you and a potential therapist get along—you want to work with someone you feel comfortable with and someone you feel safe talking to. In order for therapy to work, you must be honest with your healthcare provider and be confident that they will be able to help you. If you don’t feel that you are making progress, you want to feel comfortable enough to raise your concerns.

Remember, finding the right therapist might take some work, and you might speak with a number of providers before you find the one that is right for you.

National Institute of Mental Health. "Bipolar Disorder."
American Journal of Managed Care. "Bipolar Disorder: Quality of Life and the Impact of Atypical Antipsychotics."
PSYCOM. "Treatments for Bipolar Disorder: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and More."
Society of Counseling Psychology. "Counseling Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology." "Clinical vs Direct Practice Social Work."
Your Health in Mind. "Psychiatrists and psychologists: what's the difference?"
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. "Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy." PsychCentral. June 2019.
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. "10 Ways to Find a Good Therapist." PsychCentral. July 2018.
Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. "Key Questions to Ask When Choosing a Therapist." PsychCentral. January 2020.
National Institute of Mental Health. "Psychotherapies."
American Psychological Association. "How to Choose a Psychologist."

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