How to Get Taken Seriously as a Mental Health Professional

Many therapists looking to start or grow their private practice often wonder the same question when they are starting out:  How do I get referrals?  If you can tolerate a mild rant, I may have one answer for you.

Let’s look at this concern through a tried and true mental health paradigm.  First, we take a symptom, and then we look at the underlying conflict that the symptom represents.

So what’s the symptom?  That’s easy, head on over to LinkedIn and take a look at several profile pictures of colleagues.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  What did you see?  When I looked I saw some professional headshots, but more of the following:

  • blank photos
  • top of head/ chin cut off
  • people in front of a car
  • waterfalls
  • tank tops
  • the “I’m holding my phone camera at arm’s length” shot
  • at a party
  • graduation gown
  • flower
  • too dark to see
  • wearing sunglasses
  • skiing


If you want to generate referrals, this may be a problem. Some colleagues may have a different opinion or be too diplomatic to say this, but let me not mince words.  If you don’t have a professional headshot it is doubtful I will refer to you.  I don’t send people to waterfalls for psychotherapy.  I suspect people wearing shades of paranoia or vampirism.  I envy people who can ski much too much to ever want to help them grow their business.  Cars in photos are either nicer than mine or too shabby, triggering too much judgment either way.  And party-goers scare me.  😉

My experience as a consultant has been that these headshots are symptomatic of one of two scenarios:

1.  You don’t take social media seriously.  In this day and age, our potential patients want to see us before they see us.  They often do their research by checking out our online presence.  If you go on LinkedIn for example, you may find that several people viewed your profile this week.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  I have seen great head shots in black and white, or even avatars for online therapists, so it doesn’t have to be a standard color shot.  But the way technology works now, whatever picture you choose will most likely attach to your emails, tweets, blog comments, posts, and feeds of all kinds. There are exceptions to this, like my colleague Social Jerk, who needs to maintain a tight hold on her anonymity to allow for her to create such creative and satiric posts about social work.  But if you are not trying to be a satirist, but rather grow a therapy practice, this will not work for you.  And if you’re on Twitter, please don’t be an egg.  When I need to jettison followers to follow additional people, the eggs are often the first to go.  Accept that social media is the point of professional first contact with your colleagues and customers.  Take it seriously.

2.  You don’t take yourself as a therapist and businessperson seriously.  Anyone that has read this blog or chatted with me at a workshop can probably tell you that I am neither dour nor constantly serious.  I certainly think there is a lot of room in our profession for humanity, play and creativity.

That said, we are in the business of providing treatment for serious concerns, working with people who have a range of predicaments.  We assess for suicidality, psychosis and trauma.  Your patients come to you with vulnerability and hope that you will help them create profound change, recovery and healing in their lives, maybe even help them stay alive.  If you think that therapy is just two people in a room chatting, then by all means keep the beach picture.

To get a professional head shot requires investment of your time and money.  It is a business expense.  If you are unwilling to invest in a professional image to represent your business concern I suspect you are not ready to own and run a business.  If you are unwilling to invest the time to look through your existing photographs and select one (if you have it) that presents a professional demeanor online then I suspect you are not ready to own and run a business.

Now I know that the term “professional” photo is vague and subjective.  I am not saying that you need to be in a suit and tie.  You can be a play therapist and have affect like my colleague Charlotte Reznik.  But slapping up a blurry photo of you near a palm tree sends the message that you can’t be bothered to represent yourself or your brand.  And in business we need to be concerned about our brands, even as therapists.

Look, I’m not saying these things to hurt your feelings.  I really want you to succeed, and I know that there are a lot of people out there who need your help.  That’s why I suggest that the photo is the symptom of an underlying issue, which is the difficulty to take either technology or your business seriously.  If you have taken time and consulted with trusted colleagues and have come to the conclusion that “I want potential patients to see me as someone blurry whom they could go skiing with” is your brand, and that the head shot is a conscious and intentional image to brand yourself online than you have my blessing.

If not, get thee to a photographer.


If you are interested in participating in a small group supervision experience, you may want to check out the Supervision Package I’ll be offering this fall.  You can find out more about it here.

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  1. Cheryl Douglass says

    So Mike, you stepped out on a limb big time…I am just curious since I DO take my transition seriously, if you would take a peek at my LinkedIn site to see what YOU think. I have just recently updated my information and am anxiously waiting for that “first position”. Thanks if you offer!

  2. Ultimate lulz. The day before I read this post, I thought, “Gee, my LinkedIn photo is so unprofessional!” Then I looked at my contacts (most of whom are mental health professionals) and realized that you were one of my ONLY connections with a decent headshot. Group supervision is one thing…maybe my friends and I should get a group “Grown-Up, Real, Honest-to-Goodness, We’re-Not-Even-Playin Professional Photo Shoot” package…

  3. Nice post, Mike, and I agree. Many therapists say they want to be taken seriously but don’t take themselves seriously and, by implication, don’t take therapy seriously – though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d get very defensive if, say, a psychiatrist said ‘Counselling is just middle aged women feeling sorry for people and making them pay for it.’ It’s what I believe myself much of the time. We want too much to be liked ourselves.
    I’ll get a professional headshot when I can afford one, but I’m reasonably content with what I’ve got now. Feel free to say otherwise!

  4. John Lee, LCSW says

    i feel so vain, finally got someone to come by and take some photos of me, and i couldn’t be happier with the results. also the investment into getting a headshot is really priceless and quite affordable.

    even asking an aspiring photographer would do a better job on the profile pic than a snapshot on a webcam or iphone.

  5. Thank you, Mike! I’ve written about this issue as well. It’s a pet peeve of mine and there’s NO WAY I’m referring to someone who appears to have one foot into their profession and another one on the beach! If you aren’t serious about doing the business of therapy, then I’m seriously not referring to you!

  6. I am often bemused at some of the ways that therapists choose to present themselves online. I wonder if it is done with thought and planning or with thoughtlessness and haste. I’m reminded of an ongoing theme of conversations the medical director of my post-doctoral fellowship had with trainees. She would tell us we’d need to decide what kind of therapist we wanted to be: reachable or unreachable, warm or distant, etc. She encouraged us to know what worked for us, and who we wanted to be, and only take the sorts of patients who needed the kind of approach we could offer.

    I’ve thought of these conversations a lot as I’ve developed more of an online presence as a therapist. Just about everything I do communicates the kind of psychologist I am, the kind of patients I work with, the things I’m good at, and the things I am not so good at.

    I worry that people can go too far to the other extreme. Become boring and generic in an attempt to fit in with how therapists are “supposed to look” (whatever that is!). I think it’s okay to be unique, different, and communicate about yourself as a therapist–as long as it is done with thought and intent.

    But just no sunglasses! 🙂

  7. Maybe so but what about good old fashioned referrals for previously having done good work. John 🙂

  8. You couldn’t have said it better. Love your website! Keep up the great work.

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