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How to Find a Psychotherapist in a Biased Society By Lupe Diaz

In June of 2016, The Atlantic published an important article called “Not White, Not Rich and Seeking Therapy.” The byline: “Even for those with insurance, getting mental healthcare means fighting through phone tag, payment confusion, and even outright discrimination.” The article described how a white, middle-class person had a 28% of a call back from a new therapist, but middle-class African American callers only had a 17% chance of a call back. The odds were also stacked against you if you were a male and/or perceived to be poor. A white woman calling to make an appointment with a therapist would only have to make an average of 5 calls before making an appointment, but a black male would have to make up to 80 calls. There is an acronym for this phenomenon of what are a therapist’s biases to call back prospective patients: YAVIS (young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and successful).

Having read this article, I thought I’d share my experience finding a therapist.  I began my search by going to my insurance’s website and seeing who they showed as taking my insurance. While in theory that could work I also felt that I didn’t know much about the person besides they took my insurance and they were licensed psychotherapist. A quick google search sent me to which not only gave me a list of local therapists but also had a short bio, sometimes a picture and I could sort them by who took my insurance. I picked 19 people from and I had one extra name from a therapist who I had some interaction with in the past.  Then, I took a deep breath and started calling.

Phone calls make me anxious so I sometimes stutter and say“umm.”  Even having read the Atlantic article, I had a positive attitude toward the calls and expected maybe half of the therapists to call me back.  I purposely spoke slowly and annunciated my words as I left messages and intended to repeat my phone number twice.

My first call back was from the therapist who I had a past interaction. Although I accidently didn’t leave my number with her, she was able to contact me anyway. Remember a therapist you leave a message for can only call you back if they have a number to call back. This may seem an obvious point, but the Atlantic article stated that a great many people don’t do this and therefore do not get call backs.

A second therapist picked up my initial call, so I didn’t have to leave a message and we made an appointment right away. The third therapist called me back to say she didn’t take my insurance, despite being listed as such on both my insurance’s and the Psychology Today’s websites.  A fourth therapist called back but then we started a game of phone tag which ended with no call back from her. My fifth and final call was a therapist who gave me a call back in the evening of the day I called.  He and I had a 30-minute conversation which was kind of an in-take and getting to know you.

I went to three appointments to see how I felt about each therapist.  Many people try therapy with only one therapist.  It was recommended to me from a senior therapist that I should try people out in order to find the best person for me.  I’m glad I did this because the male therapist who spoke with me for 30 minutes ended up feeling right to me.  Based on gender alone, I might not have made or gone to the appointment otherwise.

As I said, when I began making calls I thought I would get at least half of my calls back. I was surprised so many people really did not call back.  I made 20 calls, got 5 call backs, and had 3 appointments. I had to choose from the three I “interviewed” to find the therapist that I felt fit.  Thinking about the YAVIS biases, I do fit some of those qualities, but I don’t fit others.  I wonder to what extent the 15 therapists who did not call me were influenced by my Latino name or other perceptions.

In some ways finding a therapist felt like asking people out on a date.  The Atlantic article talked about a Latino woman who Americanized her name to get more call backs. For me this wasn’t an option because – like dating – I wanted the therapist I ended up with to decide that they’d take me on because of who I was and not who I presented to be.  Also, I had to meet each one in person before I decided who was the one I wanted to invest in and start a relationship.  YAVIS be damned.


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