If you've ever felt like Goldilocks searching for the mental health provider who meets all of your needs "just right"—you might be a therapist-hopper.
It's true mental health is a journey involving trial and error. As you discover more about yourself, you'll probably notice your needs changing over time. This isn't a bad thing. Changing and growing is the goal of undergoing treatment in the first place. To keep growing, it's important to seek the right support along the way. Inevitably, this creates pressure to break up with your current therapist if you feel you've outgrown them or if they aren't giving you the support you're looking for.
Despite the awkwardness, it's worth working toward an "open relationship" with your mental health care providers, as opposed to a clean break. Sure, it might feel similar to cheating on a partner at first, but many practitioners encourage clients to seek outside input and customize the journey to their individual needs.
"So often when people think about mental health, it's about getting support from only one person," said Kaylee Dueber, LMHC, a New York–based counselor. "Like a churchgoer just sees their preacher, or they see their therapist, have a coach or even just an effective medical physician."
Though some practitioners may be reticent to make a referral if a client's symptoms haven't changed, it doesn't mean you can't proactively broach the subject.
"If there's another area that you want to target, it could be beneficial to work with someone else with a more keen ability to do so," Dueber said.
Think holistically (your therapist probably does, too)
Mental health professionals have a responsibility to treat people holistically, argued licensed psychologist Patricia Robison of Thriveworks Maryland.
"When I sit across from someone, I treat the whole person," Robison said. "Not just their mental health, not just their relationship with their mom, and not just their body, heart or spirit. Each person is so unique that [therapists] have to be willing to pull on a lot of specialties."
Infusing multiple specialties might mean your therapist is trained in more than one modality or approach. And if they don't have a particular specialty, a good therapist will refer you to someone who fits the bill, similar to how a primary care doctor would send you to an orthopedic surgeon for a knee replacement.
London-based environmental psychologist and well-being consultant Lee Chambers takes it a step further and even examines the workplace. Chambers encourages clients to search for accessible and low-cost mental health support through their companies' benefits packages, knowing it may not address every single one of their needs but could provide a bolster to the work they do with their outside therapist.
There's no reason to worry your therapist isn't going to be on board with the idea of added support since holistic well-being is an important topic among mental health practitioners. However, your counselor or therapist might have some questions to make sure your experience is cohesive and not overwhelming.
The potential conflicts of seeing multiple therapists
While an à la carte approach to mental health is often advisable, you should only do so when you're armed with the right information.
Ask about the modalities or approaches your new practitioner(s) will use, then inform your current team about your plans to branch out. Differing approaches can support your mental health journey, as well as provide challenges. Prepare for possible incompatibilities, such as therapists using opposing methods or seeking different results.
According to London-based cognitive hypnotherapist Kirsty Macdonald, modalities that help you integrate more cerebral or transformational forms of therapy—such as body-based or somatic therapies—are almost essential when undergoing a big life change.
"As a cognitive hypnotherapist, I'm trained predominantly in head change," Macdonald said. "Clients can move through their issues quickly and feel quite free, but then what else? If you've been holding onto your issues on an identity level, and it's suddenly gone, there can be this sense of being unrooted. Grounding practices like bodywork, breathwork and yoga are going to be really important to create positive new patterns in place of the things that were difficult in the past."
Macdonald's observations led her to offer coaching in addition to her hypnotherapy services, but she's still not afraid to refer clients to providers even more specialized than she is.
"Within the therapeutic realm, practitioners—without necessarily meaning to—will step outside their zone of competency and might be trying to address issues that they're not actually trained to address. But, actually, if they bring in the expertise of somebody else, it would serve their clients better," Macdonald said.
Logistical considerations when seeing multiple therapists
Ready to explore your options? Here are some logistical details you'll want to consider when putting together your dream team:
- Cost: Try out free or low-cost sessions with new practitioners before investing in their expensive offerings, such as a flagship monthly membership group. Coaches, therapists and other practitioners often have a social media presence, or even podcasts, where they offer broad information to the public. Start there to get a feel for who you like, then invest appropriately based on how deep you want to go.
- Time commitment: Ask your therapists or coaches upfront what kind of time commitment they expect. For instance, will they suggest reading, journaling or other kinds of practices outside of your sessions with them? Don't overcommit.
- Insurance: Check if your insurance plan requires that you get a referral from a physician or your current psychologist to see certain specialists.
- Approaches/modalities: Some body-based therapies pair nicely with cognitive approaches. But not every practitioner will be on board. As Macdonald summarized, a transformational coach might treat you with the goal of helping you move through and release your anxiety, but a more traditional therapist might help you accept anxiety as a part of your life with loving compassion and no intention to help you eliminate it. And, of course, a psychiatrist would likely prescribe medication to lower your anxiety. As vastly different as these approaches are, they can be complementary with good communication.
- Medication: While holistic therapy is overwhelmingly positive, a psychiatrist isn't going to want you to be prescribed additional psychiatric medication from another doctor since they want to avoid miscommunications and certain chemical reactions that could occur if the wrong medicines are mixed. Be sure to disclose any prescriptions you have to all of your practitioners and don't mix drugs without a doctor's consent.
Give yourself adequate time to get a feel for each practitioner you see. Chambers suggests you wait until after four to six weeks of regular visits before deciding whether a new provider is going to be the right fit for you.
"Give the process a chance," Chambers said. "Build some momentum."
With time, you'll become an expert at stating your needs, asking supportive questions and practicing transparency.