How to Select a Psychologist or Counselor: A Guide for Atheists

Mental Health Awareness Ribbon
Mental Health Awareness Ribbon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess it was the title of Friendly Atheist's post ("Can You Avoid Religious Psychologists?") that struck a nerve and prompted this post. As an atheist, it ticks me off when people spread misconceptions about atheists. I suppose as someone with a background in the mental health field, I feel similarly when it comes to my profession.

The good news is that it is much more difficult to find a psychologist, counselor, or other mental health professional who will push religion on his or her clients than it is one who would never dream of doing so. That said, it is important that atheists seeking a mental health provider are able to find one with whom they will feel comfortable. In this post, I will use Friendly Atheist's post as a springboard for sharing some tips on selecting a mental health provider.

A reader contacted Friendly Atheist and had the following to say:

Something just happened that I’d like advice on (from you or your readers). My son has been diagnosed with ADHD by his pediatrician and I figured we’d go to a child psychologist for more info (an idea the pediatrician encouraged). I picked the closest one on my insurance’s coverage list and set up an appointment.

Luckily, we got an informational packet in the mail from this psychologist (actually a Licensed Professional Counselor) before we actually went to meet with her. Let me quote some of the things that were in her packet.

The counselor’s responsibilities are:
* Spending personal time with the Lord
* Praying for the client
* Studying scriptures
* Listening to client concerns, facts, feelings, faith position
* Sharing scripture and personal walk appropriate to client concerns
* Praying with the client, acknowledging God’s available presence with him/her

She holds a Master’s degree in Religious Education from a Baptist theological seminary (in addition to other more valid sounding degrees). She signs off by saying, “I have already begun to pray for our times together…”

I was dumbfounded by this. I mean, I do live in the Bible Belt, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I am still dismayed that this person appeared on a list of medical providers supplied by my insurance company!

I guess my question is, how do I keep this from happening again? (I cancelled the appointment, of course.) Do I need to call and explicitly ask each psychologist (or whatever other health care specialist) if their practice is based in reality or superstition?

The reader did the right thing by canceling the appointment. This sort of thing certainly can happen, but it is fortunately uncommon and fairly easy to avoid. There are some poorly trained, unethical and/or seriously deluded mental health practitioners out there, but they are the minority. This is true even here in the Bible Belt.

First, I'd like to clarify some credentialing terminology. The provider described by the reader was a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and not a psychologist. The LPC is a master's-level designation as opposed to the doctoral degree psychologists have. There are many excellent LPCs out there, and they are a cheaper alternative when one does not need the additional expertise of a psychologist.

So when might one need the additional expertise of a psychologist? First, a psychologist will generally have more extensive research training than a master's level clinician. This does not necessarily mean they are better, but it does mean that they are more likely to operate as scientist-practitioners than master's-level clinicians. The more complex the problem, the greater benefit can be derived from someone with this additional training. Second, psychologists can do psychological testing. I mention this not only because it is a critical difference but because it might be relevant to Friendly Atheist's reader. Medical doctors are fairly quick to diagnose ADHD, and psychological testing is likely to result in a more accurate diagnosis.

For the atheist who needs a mental health professional, I offer the following recommendations:

  • When first calling to schedule an appointment, inquire about the provider's degree and the institution from where the degree was obtained. If the degree is from a fundamentalist Christian school, you can probably move on.
  • If the provider is an LPC, ask directly whether this person provides "Christian counseling." If so, move on. You are not asking whether the counselor is Christian but whether they provide "Christian counseling." This is an important difference and one which you are well advised to heed.
  • View the initial appointment as an opportunity to evaluate the provider. If you do not feel comfortable for any reason, ask for a referral and move on. Reputable providers tend to encourage this sort of evaluation - they want to make sure they can be helpful to you and that you feel comfortable with them.
  • Recognize that many mental health professionals will ask, on questionnaires or in person, something about your religious affiliation or the importance of spirituality in your life. They tend to do this to help understand your worldview and not to convert you. However, if the provider makes disparaging comments about your lack of religious participation, spirituality, and the like, move on. This represents a violation of the provider's professional ethics, and you deserve better.
  • If you are seeking therapy and want to make sure that your provider will utilize scientifically-sound methods, look for someone who provides cognitive-behavioral therapy. Of all the therapeutic modalities, it has been researched the most extensively and has the most evidence supporting its efficacy.

For additional information on selecting a treatment provider, see this excellent resource from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.