What Is A Psychotherapist?
By Nadia Khan
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Lauren Fawley
A psychotherapist is a type of mental health practitioner which helps people but who is different from a psychiatrist or a psychologist. There are many different "psych" practitioners, and it can get confusing to understand the difference between them.
A psychotherapist is a term used to describe any professional who treats patients with emotional problems. Psychotherapists don't have to hold a psychiatric degree, such as social workers or counselors. The term is not one relating to the person's educational studies or specialization but merely an umbrella term. The terms "counselor", "social worker", and "therapist" are often used interchangeably. Some psychiatrists and psychologists also provide psychotherapy.
The average psychotherapist holds a Masters degree in psychology or another related field of graduate study such as social work or counseling. Psychotherapists get training in communication and interpersonal skills, mental health diagnoses, theories and practice of counseling, ethical standards, multiculturalism, and more. After graduating, clinicians have to pass an exam to become licensed with their state boards, and then practice therapy under supervision for a time before they can quality for independent licensure.
It is important when searching for a qualified therapist that you check with the state board in your state to see if they are licensed. There are other types of people that provide coaching or counseling, like Christian counselors and life coaches that do not need licensure. Therefore, it can be difficult to determine their level of experience or expertise.
What Is Psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy creates a relationship between the patient and the care provider by meeting together to talk. There are many different types of approaches that different therapists take, depending on their training and emphasis. While patients may initially turn to psychotherapy to deal with single problem, some psychotherapy is designed to look at patterns and recurring issues within the patient's life which have contributed to the problem. Some psychotherapists are used to changing the person's future by helping to change the patient's reactions and thought processes which resulted from past experiences into healthier mindsets.
Some counseling approaches focus more on problem solving and teaching new skills to cope with negative events. Most psychotherapists cannot prescribe medication but may have a relationship with another professional such as a psychiatrist who they can refer patients to who can prescribe medication if it is needed.
Many people see the iconic chaise couch and think about stigma associated with going to therapy, but the truth is therapy is different for everyone. Older approaches to helping people with mental health problems have tended to give way to new theories to meet modern society.
When to See a Psychotherapist
You don't have to have problems severe enough for a clinical mental health diagnosis to see a therapist, although therapists help people manage serious symptoms and conditions as well. Counselors and social workers simply understand that there are times when daily issues from mental health troubles are perhaps overwhelming, and you need support from a professional for a short time. Therapists listen without judgment. Therapy is intended for giving you the tools to deal with these problems and get people back to focusing on their goals for the present and future.
People seek help for many reasons. Some come to get support through a difficult life-event. You should consider seeing a psychotherapist if you have negative feelings that are overwhelming, especially if you find them making your normal life harder (such as in areas of work, school, relationships, activities). Some people feel very limited by mental health symptoms or have considered hurting themselves. It is important to seek treatment if this is the case.
Sessions for psychotherapy can be either group, individual or family based and last between 30 minutes to 50 minutes, sometimes longer for groups. They usually only include one therapist who works to build trust with the patient (usually during individual sessions) You may have individual therapy, or group therapy or a combination of both as well as homework assignments. The sessions themselves will depend on the type of psychotherapy that you're working with as the range is huge.
Types of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy, like "psychotherapist", is an umbrella term used to cover a variety of techniques used to treat psychiatric issues and mental health problems. One effective and common type of psychotherapy is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In this modality, clients are helped to identify the relationships between thoughts and feelings and how those impact our actions.
Other types of psychotherapy include mindfulness techniques and relaxation, biofeedback, motivational enhancement therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and interactive group therapy. These are only a few. Many psychotherapists will specialize in one or two different types of therapy depending on their practice. For example, a family counselor may be particularly experienced in interactive group therapy. Your psychotherapist might even have one of the less common specializations like a focus on positivity that includes improv comedy scenes and interactive techniques to make you laugh.
Psychotherapy vs. Psychiatry
It is less common in the era of managed care for psychiatrists to have received indepth training in psychotherapy and to practice therapy along with medical treatment (medication) for psychiatric conditions. There are some psychiatrists that still provide both types of services. These days, more psychiatrists focus on the biology behind mental illness and prescribe medication or other medical interventions to treat them
Choosing a Psychotherapist
Finding a therapist in your area can be challenging, depending on how many therapists are in your area and where they practice. Some websites offer directories of local therapists, and you can browse their skills and training to find someone who is right for you. You'll also need to understand the cost of getting therapy. Many therapists work on a sliding (income based) scale or payment plans for your insurance. A therapist must usually be licensed to accept any form of insurance payments. When you're ready to set your appointment your first meeting will usually be about getting to know each other and creating a rapport with your therapist. You can also ask them questions before setting an appointment such as whether they are licensed, whether they can prescribe medication and how much experience they have working with patients like yourself.
There are online counseling platforms such as BetterHelp.com that provide access to licensed mental health professionals at your convenience, so there has never been a better time to take the first step to get support.