It’s not easy for anyone to find their ideal therapist. It’s doubly hard for folks who are dealing with stressors that not all therapists are equipped to handle — like folks who have long COVID-19 or another chronic illness.
While people dealing with a chronic illness likely have some steps in place to address the physical effects of their condition, it’s also important to have support for the toll a long-term disease can take on your mental health.
“Coping with a new and possibly long-term illness is enormously stressful, and I think it’s in part because people are both struggling with their current symptoms they’re facing … but then they’re also wondering ‘Is this the new me?’” said Lauri Pasch, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
The uncertainty that accompanies the illness is also stressful, she said, which makes mental health support crucial for any treatment plan.
“Even people who are really resilient can feel really distressed,” Pasch said. “Psychotherapy can be really helpful to help people develop a healthy outlook regarding whatever the symptoms are they’re facing, or the condition, and then to build resilient skills to manage the distress.”
If left untreated, that distress can lead to more problems. Studies show that chronic stress can cause cardiovascular issues, depression and anxiety, among other conditions. So it’s important to prioritize your mental health when dealing with a high-stress situation like long COVID or another chronic illness.
Here’s how to find a therapist who can help you:
Ask your medical doctor for input.
According to Christopher Hansen, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks in San Antonio, Texas, the relationship between medical doctors and mental health professionals has become more symbiotic in recent years. Often, folks will be set up with a therapist or a social worker when they receive a chronic illness diagnosis — though that’s certainly not always the case.
It’s mostly recognized that “mental health support is really crucial” for people dealing with a chronic illness, Hansen said. If you aren’t given a mental health referral from your doctor, you can ask them for therapist recommendations.
“A lot of times, the providers themselves will already have resources for their patients,” Hansen said. “They have a ready resource of social work or mental health providers they work with all the time.”
Try an online database.
According to Dr. Rishab Gupta, a neuropsychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston, there are a number of online databases that you can use to find a mental health provider in your area.
For example, Psychology Today “has a lot of psychotherapist listings on it, and one could use filters to even find which therapists accept their insurance,” Gupta said. LifeStance Health is another place to look.
Reach out to a reputable support group.
Pasch said support organizations for your condition, whether it’s long COVID or another chronic illness, are a good place to find therapists as well.
“Those support organizations almost always … will have referral lists and information about therapists that work in that arena that would potentially be good support,” she said.
While many support groups exist, Pasch notes that not all are reputable. Some may be promoting treatments that aren’t science-backed. She said it’s important to look online (and not on sites like Facebook) for legitimate support services. You can try groups run through hospitals and official nonprofit groups.
Look for a therapist who knows how to treat people with chronic illnesses.
Hansen said it’s important to find a therapist who has direct experience treating people with chronic illnesses. They’ll understand what the mental health treatment should entail, and the stressors and frustrations that folks with an ongoing illness face.
For example, Hansen said that some of his patients increase their appointments during high-stress times of treatment, and decrease their appointments when their illness is under control.
The therapist has to have the willingness, knowledge and ability to understand that things can ebb and flow with a chronic illness, Hansen said. You can directly ask the therapist if they have experience treating folks with a chronic illness, or you can specifically search for a chronic illness therapist online.
Know what you want out of therapy — and make sure your therapist can give you that.
Hansen said that some mental health providers are OK with you reaching out outside of your appointment hours, while others are not OK with this. Likewise, some providers can be flexible with the cadence of your appointments, while others can’t.
Think about what you need out of a therapist, and ask questions to determine if a particular therapist is a good fit for you. You’ll want to make sure you actually like your therapist, too.
“If you don’t find someone that you connect with … you’re not going to get anything done,” Hansen said.
Remember, you’re not alone: Anxiety and depression are common for people with chronic medical conditions.
“Often, chronic medical illnesses and long COVID, in particular, is associated with very high rates of depression, anxiety and other psychiatric illness, which can further worsen the prognosis and lead to delayed recovery,” Gupta said. When someone is depressed, it can be hard for them to find the motivation to attend appointments, take medication or make any lifestyle changes that are necessary for their treatment.
It’s common for people with long COVID or other chronic illnesses to deal with depression or anxiety ― and it’s an important thing to address, Gupta said. It becomes difficult to continue (or begin) treatment without addressing underlying mental health disorders, he noted.
But he also said there is currently a long waitlist for mental health services at many therapy offices throughout the country. In other words, now is the time to start your journey to find a therapist, because you may have to wait a while until you can get in.
Some therapists aren’t prepared to treat long COVID.
“Particularly, with regard to long COVID … you need to find someone who is knowledgeable about long COVID and in general coping with chronic illness or ongoing health problems,” Pasch said.
The therapist needs to be supportive, and can’t be someone who treats your problem as though it’s due to stress or all in your head (which is a common long COVID misconception), she said.
“I think a lot of long COVID patients have found that when they reach out to physicians or therapists, they’re getting the feeling that this is their own problem, that it isn’t something that is acknowledged as real,” Pasch said. “That’s something to watch out for from the beginning.”
“There is a lot of stigma and invalidating when it comes to long COVID syndrome, so that can itself lead to a lot of distress, anxiety, depression” ― which can also make people question their own sanity, Gupta said. “That also kind of fuels feelings of depression [and] anxiety, so that also requires treatment. It needs to be addressed in some kind of therapeutic setting.”
And anyone working in that setting should be validating and well-informed about the reality of long COVID for millions of people.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.