Seeing a psychologist: here’s what to expect

10 Jun 2023

Have you ever been feeling stressed or downright overwhelmed, and wondered if perhaps you should talk to someone... but you’ve procrastinated on actually making the appointment? 

Taking the step to reach out to a psychologist, counsellor or other mental health clinician can be daunting, for sure. Just like anything new, taking the first step comes with a whole load of unknowns, so having an idea of what to expect can help.
Lots of good stuff can come out of talking to a professional - whether that’s offloading in a safe space, getting in touch with how you feel or working through deeper issues with the helping hand of an expert. We asked Clinical Psychologist Dr Tracey Zielinski to share exactly what goes down in a typical therapy session with a psychologist.

What will usually happen during a first appointment with a psychologist?

“Normally, in your first appointment your psychologist will ask you about why you’re there. They will get a brief history from you. They may ask you what strategies you’re using to cope. If you don’t feel comfortable answering all their questions, just let them know. Your psychologist will be listening to you and doing their best to help you feel safe and supported. Depending on the psychologist and what you tell them, they may suggest a particular approach to therapy they think would suit you. They may even give you some tools or strategies to start working on. “ 

Will it feel awkward talking to a stranger – and will I really have to lie on a couch like in the movies?

“Remember that the session is for your benefit. It’s important that you feel as though you are being listened to. You should know within a couple of sessions whether you feel able to trust your psychologist to help you. 

A psychologist in private practice will generally have a comfortable room with chairs for you both to sit on. They will be trying to make you feel as safe and supported as possible, because they understand it can be difficult to open up to someone you don’t yet know. It’s very unlikely that your psychologist will ask you to lie on a couch.” 

Do I need to have a mental illness to see a psychologist ?

“A mental health diagnosis is not necessary to see a psychologist. You can pay privately to see a psychologist for any reason. If you have private health cover, you may be eligible for a rebate, depending upon your cover and provider. 

If you are wanting to get your GP to do a Mental Health Care Plan [to enable you to access subsidised psychology sessions], then you must have a level of distress that your GP can refer to when making the referral. Your GP will let you know whether you are eligible. With a Mental Health Care Plan, you are entitled to 10 Medicare-rebated sessions in a calendar year.” 

I’m having a tough time, but I'm worried that talking about how bad I'm feeling will make me feel worse...

“The job of a psychologist is to help you work through issues and build skills and strategies to better deal with the stuff life throws at you. Psychologists train for many years so they can help you when you are struggling with life. 

If you are having a tough time and not taking steps to try to move forward, you can end up feeling both helpless and hopeless. If you work with a psychologist to start building skills to move yourself forward, you will start to feel more hopeful, and start to feel better within yourself. It’s not always an easy path, but it’s better than staying stuck where you were.”

Why should I see a psychologist when I can chat to my friends and/or family?

“A psychologist’s role is not to ‘have a chat’. They probably won’t cry with you, although they generally provide you with tissues. They won’t always agree with you, but they shouldn’t judge you. They are trained professionals who will help you develop skills, strategies, and tools to help you cope. They may help you reflect on your reactions so that you start to see them from a different perspective. 

Don’t stop talking with your friends and family, though. They, too, have an important part to play in your mental wellness. Socialising with people who care can help you destress and can help reduce depression. Having friends and family to talk with can be helpful for debriefing, but they are less likely than a psychologist to be objective when talking with you. They will get emotional with you, they will hug you, and they will support you.”  

What if I can’t afford to see a psychologist?

“You may be able to get a Mental Health Care Plan through your GP, which allows you to access up to 10 Medicare-rebated sessions in a calendar year. The rebate covers most of a psychologist’s fee.  

If you search around, you may find a psychologist who is prepared to bulk bill you, so there is no out- of-pocket expense. It never hurts to ask a psychologist if they will bulk bill you if you cannot afford to pay.” 

Once I start seeing a psychologist, how many times will I need to go?

“There’s no simple answer to this question. I’ve helped clients in as little as three sessions, yet other clients I have seen on and off for several years. I would encourage you to ask your psychologist this question when you start working with them. The important issue is that you feel you’re learning new skills that improve your ability to cope with life’s stresses. If you’re learning and growing, you will know when you feel you can cope without seeing a psychologist anymore. If you don’t feel you are getting anything out of therapy after two or three sessions, perhaps consider talking to your psychologist about your experience. It may be that you would work better with a different therapist or with a different style of therapy.” 

I saw a psychologist once, but it wasn’t helpful, so therapy isn’t for me

“Firstly, not every psychologist is necessarily a good fit for you. Just as you don’t always like everyone you meet socially, sometimes you simply don’t gel with a particular psychologist. If seeing one psychologist didn’t work for you, but you’re still struggling with life issues, then perhaps finding a different psychologist may help. 

Secondly, there are different styles of therapy – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and so on. It may be that the psychologist you saw practiced a style of therapy that didn’t suit you. 

Thirdly, it’s important to remember that what happens in a one- hour session with a psychologist is just the start of your journey. It’s important for you to put what you learn in the session into practice in your everyday life. Change takes effort.”

Dr Tracey Zielinski 
Clinical Psychologist

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