How to spot a bad therapist


Photo from Burningwell

By David Joel Miller.

What a therapist should not do

Spotting a bad one of anything is the hard part. It may be harder with therapists than with other professions because of the confidentiality requirement. We aren’t supposed to tell you who comes to see us as that would violate their privacy. That makes it hard for you to check references. But there are some ways you can spot people who have broken the rules, violated codes of ethics and laws and generally not behaved in a way that would make me want anyone I know to go see them.

There are tell-tale signs that this person is not the counselor for you. It is not about the size or place of their office. There are some really great people who have their offices in poor parts of town. It is also not about the price they charge. We would all like to think that the person who charges more does so because they deserve it. That is not always true. And full-time people are no more reliable that part-timers when it comes to therapists. Many really good people work only part-time because they teach, have government jobs or are semi-retired.

There are some things that should always make you suspicious if you see them. Here in California you can go to the Board of Behavioral Sciences website and check the status of anyone’s license. Many other states have license bureaus where you can check to see if the provider has ever had an action taken against their license. You need to be careful how you read the notations if the person’s intern number shows as “canceled’ that is probably a good thing. The intern number is canceled when they get a full unrestricted license. But it their license has ever been suspended or revoked you should check why.

Every mouth I get a magazine for therapists and in the middle, it has a list of all the professionals whose licenses have been suspended, revoked etc. Here are the top things that therapists and counselors should not do but sometimes some of them do.

A therapist should never have sex with a client.

Does this sound odd? This is one of the top two reasons counselors lose their licenses. In California, we have a book that is titled “Professional Therapy Never Includes Sex.” We are supposed to keep that book with us and if a client ever says a past provider had a sexual relationship with them we give them that book. There is a fine if we don’t have the book. One reason that we are not supposed to get into romantic relationships with clients is because it is unfair to have them pour out their hearts to us and then use that information to get them into bed. When you go to a counselor you are looking for an independent person. If you have ever been or think you might be involved with them romantically that is not the professional for you. It is wise to keep friendships and therapy relationships separate also. Friends can’t always tell you the truth about things. Your therapist should.

You can’t help people if you need help.

Impaired therapists especially those who abuse alcohol and drugs are in no position to help anyone else. Now I believe in recovery. People with mental, emotional or substance abuse problems can recover and recovered people can make excellent counselors. But no one can be fully helpful when they are impaired themselves. Some professions let people who are arrested for bad behavior go back to work right away. A professional counselor or therapist will be required to get help for themselves before they can return to work. Usually, there will be a waiting period before the start back to seeing clients and they may have to have a supervisor checking their work.

If you have bipolar disorder a professional who has the disorder also may be uniquely qualified to understand what you are going through and to help you. You just need to be sure they have found the solution to the problem and are functioning well themselves. You won’t always know this. Substance abuse counselors are much more likely to self-disclose that they are in recovery than mental health counselors. I am suggesting here that you interview the therapist as much as they should interview you. How comfortable do you feel that this person is the person to help you? Do, for sure give it and yourself a chance. It is not helpful to bounce from therapist to therapist. But if you get one of those gut feelings that this is not the person for you, I think you should listen to that feeling.

How much can you be honest with the person you owe money?

No counselor should ever borrow money from a client. It is considered unethical and probably illegal most of the time. Run from anyone who suggests that and if the therapist talks about their money problems, this is a bad sign. In fact, any time you feel like part of your therapy session was spent on the counselor’s problem this is a bad sign.

They shouldn’t be in the business of lending money either. This is really bad. It makes you indebted to them and distorts the relationship. Counseling is all about the relationship. So anything that takes the focus off working with you on your problem and puts that focus on the counselor, be wary. This is not what is supposed to be going on here.

This also means that you need to pay as you go. Running up a big bill with your counselor makes them start thinking about the money you owe and not about helping you. If you find it hard to pay, discuss this with them and work out a solution. Don’t just let it go.

Bosses and therapists don’t mix.

Don’t go to work for your therapist. Trading stuff for therapy is also risky as it sets up a situation for one of you to be unhappy. Most codes of ethics tell us that we should not have any other relationship with our clients that the professional one. There may be some distant relationships like living in the same town or shopping in the same grocery store, but close relationships with your counselor are always problematic.

This boss and therapist relationship is especially problematic if you work in a place that employs therapists. It is a bad Idea to talk to the therapist who works in the office next to you over lunch. Do you really want everyone at work to know your marital problems? So if you need help pick someone outside your normal sphere of activity and plan to pay them and thereby keep the relationship strictly professional.

So there you have it, four rules to help you spot a counselor or therapist that is not right for you. In other posts, I have and will talk about the positive things to look for in picking a professional.

Some people think that any licensed person has been “checked out” somehow. Not exactly. They have met some minimum requirements but other professionals do not go to see them anonymously and check them out. So should you run into a professional that is not behaving legally or ethically it is up to you to avoid that person.

Hope some of these thoughts are helpful. Till next time here is wishing you a happy life.

David Miller, LMFT, LPCC

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