Therapist, counselor, shrink, head doctor, analyst –– you’ve likely heard many terms to describe a mental health professional. If you’ve seen any episode of Frasier, you likely have a pretty foundational understanding that a psychologist listens to other people’s problems, analyzes them, and helps bring clarity and resolution. Not all of them are also radio personalities.
Mental health in general can be a bit of a taboo subject, so it’s not entirely strange if you don't know what therapy and related practices are. But, you should know the basics, especially if you are currently considering pursuing treatment.
Let’s dig in.
Psychotherapy is the clinical practice of alleviating emotional distress through talk therapy. This type of mental health therapy is practiced by many different types of professionals, from psychiatrists and psychologists to social workers and licensed counselors. At the core of talk therapy is the use of discussion to explore difficult situations, past and present.
Therapy can be a big step in personal development and mental health no matter what challenges you may be facing. Through therapy, you can shift even the most self-destructive behaviors and habits, in addition to resolving painful feelings, moving past trauma, and improving all the relationships in your life.
Talk therapy is administered to individuals, couples, families or in a group setting, and many different approaches are taken depending on the issue. A few examples of different modalities that therapists are trained in are cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and systems-based therapy. Just because a therapist has a working knowledge of one way to approach talk therapy, doesn’t mean it’s their only tool. Many therapists use a combination of approaches to meet their patients’ needs.
Though everyone’s therapy process and journey will look different, all approaches will start off by establishing goals and next steps. It’s important to remember the relationship with your therapist is confidential, both what is discussed during sessions and the process to which sparked the conversation. In talk therapy, the process is considered to be just as critical to recovery as the issues brought up for analysis.
Overall, you should anticipate building a professional relationship with a therapist who will be unconditionally supportive, impartial but on your side, and models a healthy and positive relationship experience, gives you appropriate feedback, and follows ethical guidelines. An experienced therapist will also be able to tailor your mental health counseling specifically to your needs using well-tested and researched techniques. But, as with all trained professionals in any industry, individual therapists may add their own perspectives and approaches to established treatment protocols based on years of experience with past patients.
Although the terms counseling and therapy are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between psychotherapy and psychological counseling. The main difference is that counseling is typically more of a short-term treatment than therapy. In counseling, professional licensed mental health counselors focus on helping a person address and overcome a particular problem such as addiction or domestic abuse. The work will be action oriented, centering on problem solving or on learning specific techniques for coping skills.
Psychotherapy is usually more long-term than counseling and more open ended and broader in topics discussed. It’s also less about solving specific issues and more about exploring and gathering insights about how a person's patterns of thinking and behavior affect the way they interact with the world. The goal is to help people feel better equipped to manage unavoidable stresses, understand behavior that may interfere with personal goals, have successful relationships, and better regulate their thinking and emotional responses to stressful situations.
On the surface, there isn’t much difference between a psychologist and a therapist. Both practitioners treat people through talk therapy and other related modalities, but each has their own training and process. Most notably is the difference in educational background. A psychologist has a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) in psychology, which is the study of the mind and behaviors. Their time in graduate school provides a psychologist with an education in evaluating and treating mental and emotional disorders. After earning their degree, a clinical psychologist completes a comprehensive internship that lasts two to three years and provides further training in treatment methods, psychological theory, and behavioral therapy.
It’s important to note that even though they have earned a doctorate, they are not, though, medical doctors like psychiatrists. With the exception of a few states, psychologists cannot write prescriptions or perform medical procedures the way a psychiatrist can. Often a psychologist will work in tandem with a psychiatrist or other medical doctor as a counterpart in a patient’s treatment.
Whereas licensed psychologists are qualified to do the work of a therapist or counselor like psychological testing, and treatment for mental disorders, a licensed therapist can’t necessarily do all the same work as a psychologist. Again this comes down to education and training.
A licensed mental health counselor, or otherwise known as a therapist, is a mental health professional with a master's degree (MA) in psychology, counseling, or a related field. In order to be licensed, a therapist also needs two additional years' experience working with a qualified mental health professional after graduate school, similar to a clinical internship. Ultimately, a therapist is qualified to evaluate and treat mental problems by providing counseling or psychotherapy.
Also similar in profession is a clinical social worker, someone who holds at least a master's degree in social work and the training to evaluate and treat mental illnesses. In addition to psychotherapy, social workers can provide case management and hospital discharge planning as well as work as an advocate for patients and their family.
Therapy is for anyone, as it does not discriminate. There are so many different approaches and techniques to suit all mental health issues. Therapy is most commonly practiced with an individual, but it’s also very common to be done as a couple, family, or even in a group setting.
Therapy is for anyone looking to overcome challenges, from deep seeded traumas to managing everyday stressors. It’s particularly helpful for couples and families to work through relationship roadblocks and improve communication by learning more about each other’s patterns and behaviors. Therapy can be used as a short-term tool for tackling a specific problem, or as an opportunity to explore and investigate personal behaviors long-term.
Thousands of scientific studies underscore the consistent and positive effects of psychotherapy across all ages. Effectiveness remains high across a wide range of settings like independent practices, community centers, and hospitals. In fact, the average client receiving psychotherapy shows more mental stability than 79% of clients who do not seek treatment. By comparing the effects of psychotherapy with the effects of medication, Dr. Robert Rosenthal, Harvard University psychologist, convincingly demonstrated that the typical effects of psychotherapy often exceed the degree of effect found in biomedical breakthroughs. Simply put, psychotherapy is quite effective.
While antidepressant medications remain a powerful tool in the treatment for depression, it is only truly effective when accompanied by regular psychotherapy. Research shows that psychotherapy for depression is at least as effective as antidepressant medications during the treatment period and more effective in preventing a return of the symptoms after the treatment is stopped. Studies also consistently find that most people prefer psychotherapy over taking medications, but the two are often used simultaneously depending on the nature of the patient’s issues.
Once you decide to pursue therapy, how do you really make sure you’re maximizing your treatment? The first step is to determine how to find a therapist who is the right fit for you.
Though you may be in a hurry to find answers for your problems, it’s a good idea to take the time to carefully choose your therapist. Research different types of therapists and approaches, and make a short list of several clinicians who seem to offer what you seek, and talking over the phone with each one, or trying out a single session. Evaluate your candidates not just on their credentials, but on how comfortable you feel talking with each of them. Once you select a therapist, give the relationship at least three sessions to make sure it's a fit, unless it’s extremely clear after the first or second session that the therapist is not right for you.
Make sure you express your needs up front and don’t be timid about asking questions. Read the recommended reading and complete any “homework assignments” your therapist would like you to try outside of sessions. It’s also very helpful to establish outcome markers with your therapist for positive change, so that you’ll be better able to track your progress and stay motivated. These markers act like signposts, letting you know in what direction you’re headed. For instance, this may include feeling happier or more energized, letting go of toxic people in your life, productively managing stress, planning social dates or communicating to your boss about workplace issues.
Lastly, enjoy the process, rather than fight it. Savor the process. Therapy is like taking a course where you are the topic. Enjoy the journey and soak in as much as possible. Every session is only for your benefit. Therapy can be an amazing, transformative process toward living a conscious life if you allow it to be. When you are ready to find a therapist, Advekit can help by matching you with a specialist nearby who takes your insurance.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.