Finding the right therapist, some contend, is as great a challenge as finding the right mate.

One of the best ways to start the search is by asking for recommendations from friends or relatives who have been or are going through therapy.

Physicians, lawyers and local professional societies also can be starting places for finding help. Most organizations of mental health professionals -- such as the local psychiatric and psychological societies and area chapters of social workers and family therapists -- have directories and referral lists of members. Since there are requirements for membership, finding a therapist through one of these associations guarantees a certain minimum level of education and training.

Another option is to contact an area hospital or university with a psychiatry or psychology department and request an evaluation by a staff member. This person may help you target the problems and issues you might need to work on, guide you to the type of therapy that could be best and, possibly, offer the names of several psychotherapists who specialize in the type of treatment needed.

Avoid picking a therapist out of the telephone book, a process New Jersey clinical psychologist Richard Samuels calls the "worst way to find a psychotherapist." The two major criteria crucial to choosing a therapist, experts say, are credentials and rapport.

"Selection of the therapist should not only include the qualifications of the person but their integrity, ethical aspects, his or her personal life and the kind of person they are," says Dr. T. Byrum Karasu, professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. "You should feel good about being with the person." Experts advise patients to be aware of two taboos for therapists -- sexual contact of any kind with patients and breeching confidentiality.

Other clues to evaluating the therapist:

*The office. Are there diplomas on the wall? Is there evidence of a good library and scientific journals that would indicate an effort at keeping up with the field?

*The therapist's attitude. Good psychotherapists are willing to answer questions about their background and credentials, and are apt to encourage prospective patients to "therapist shop" until they find someone with whom they feel comfortable, experts say. Many will even give referrals to other mental health professionals for second opinions.

To help you gauge how well you fit with a psychotherapist, Michigan psychologist Steven Charles Fisch suggests asking yourself:

*Did you feel the therapist was sincere and genuine in the way he or she related to you?

*Did the therapist respond to your questions in a thoughtful and considerate manner?

*Did you feel you were taken seriously and were treated with respect?

*Do your instincts tell you this is a person you can trust -- one whose basic skill, experience and sensitivity are comforting?

During the course of treatment, certain changes should occur. "There should be some tangible results -- from feeling good to a better understanding of a problem to actual behavioral changes," says psychiatrist Karasu. "If that doesn't occur within an appropriate time, say three months, patients should change therapists."