What Is A Psychotherapist?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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You may consider psychological therapy a supportive psychotherapy option if you're experiencing mental health challenges, stress, or overwhelming and debilitating feelings. There are many types of mental health professionals and choosing the most effective provider may feel overwhelming. Understanding what a psychotherapist does could help you choose the most effective psychotherapist as you confront your symptoms and concerns.

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What is a psychotherapist?

A psychotherapist is a mental health practitioner that offers mental health services like talk therapy, counseling, or psychotherapy to help people manage behavior patterns and to strengthen coping mechanisms. If you're curious about the psychotherapy definition, psychotherapy is a common treatment or method of support that can be used to address a variety of issues and assist people in living their lives in a way that is good for their emotional, psychological, and social health. Any psychotherapist has experience in treating mental illnesses and some, such as psychiatrists, can prescribe medication. 

A psychotherapist has achieved a master's degree, and many achieve a doctorate. Psychiatrists are required to attend medical school, as they are medical doctors in the field of mental health. Other related mental health professionals are mental health nurse practitioners, who are registered nurses (RN) with special training in managing mental health problems and can prescribe medication.  A psychotherapist, like counselors, therapists, and social workers, is not required to have a medical degree or doctorate; instead, this professional helps people using a degree in psychology or a specific type of psychodynamic therapy or treatment. All licensed mental health providers must also have a certain number of clinical hours before being awarded a license to practice. 

A rigorous education 

To practice psychotherapy, a psychotherapist may hold a master's degree or doctoral degree in fields such as psychology, social work, or counseling. Depending on their degree program, a psychotherapist may be specifically trained in communication and interpersonal skills, mental health diagnoses, counseling theories, ethical standards, or multiculturalism, among others. Though the degree is not medical in nature, they might study certain disorders through the lens of physical health conditions as well as mental health conditions, to give them a more thorough understanding of the mental illness in question.

When searching for a qualified pyschotherapist, before scheduling therapy sessions you may choose to review your state board's website to confirm they are a licensed professional. Some professionals provide coaching or counseling, like religious counselors or life coaches, that may not be licensed or have an education in clinical counseling. Therefore, it can be crucial to ensure your chosen mental health professional has the educational and professional background to support you. 

Types of psychotherapists

Just as there are many types of psychotherapy, there are many types of psychotherapists providing mental health treatment. Some practicing therapists have expertise in specific mental disorders, in treating psychological difficulties, or in treating different groups of people including the following:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW): LCSWs may provide therapy while connecting clients with local community resources and case management. 
  • Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC): LPCs also provide psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and groups. In some situations, they are called licensed mental health counselors (LMHC).
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT): LMFTs deal specifically with individuals, couples, and families experiencing relationship challenges. They may work with a couple or family in group and/or individual sessions.
  • Psychologists (PsyD): Psychologists may treat people through psychotherapy, but they can also be highly trained in performing psychological assessments.
  • Psychiatrist (MD or DO): Psychiatrists are medical doctors specializing in mental health. Some psychiatrists perform therapy, and some do not. A psychiatrist may also prescribe medication to patients.

How is this different than psychiatry?

Today, psychiatrists may not receive in-depth training in psychotherapy as part of their medical training. As such, they might not often practice therapy. Often, psychiatrists focus on the biology behind mental health and prescribe medication or utilize other medical interventions to treat specific mental health disorders. They may also oversee diagnostic testing. For example, a patient with bipolar disorder may see a psychiatrist to receive medication and adjust dosages to stabilize mood and see a psychotherapist to address behavior patterns and feel comfortable taking control of their mental health and larger living situation.

Psychotherapy overview

Psychotherapy, often called talk therapy, is a treatment method that can involve talking through symptoms and concerns and learning how to cope with or overcome them. There are many approaches that therapists may take, depending on their training and emphasis.

Psychotherapy may help clients:

  • Increase self-awareness
  • Address underlying interpersonal issues
  • Find validation, support, and coping methods for traumatic experiences
  • Learn to improve communication or coping skills
  • Copewith specific mental illness diagnoses using your own resources

While patients may initially turn to psychotherapy to manage a specific symptom or mental health condition, such as eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, childhood trauma, or even just managing major life changes, some psychotherapy can be designed to look at behavioral patterns or recurring concepts within a patient's life that may have contributed to their symptoms. In other words, psychotherapy often investigates longstanding and complex issues or challenges that an individual may be experiencing. For example, a psychotherapist may help their clients change their thoughts and behaviors based on past experiences or underlying beliefs.

Some approaches may focus more on problem-solving and teaching coping skills while others may focus on social and community functioning of groups. While licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and social workers cannot prescribe medication, they may collaborate with another professional, like a licensed psychiatrist, who may prescribe medication if necessary.

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Types of psychotherapy

The term psychotherapy can be an umbrella term used to describe various techniques used to treat psychiatric symptoms, psychological difficulties, and mental health conditions. Many psychotherapists specialize in one or two types of therapy, depending on their practice. Others may take an integrative approach, combining ideas from multiple therapeutic techniques to uniquely treat each client. Some common forms and types of psychotherapy include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a structured, short-term treatment that can help clients change a behavior or thought. In this therapeutic modality, clients may learn to identify the relationships between thoughts and feelings and how those impact their actions. This kind of therapy is commonly used to treat eating disorders and other conditions associated with cognitive distortions.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy: Psychodynamic approaches may help individuals recognize their unconscious thoughts and behaviors to change their circumstances.
  • Humanistic therapy: Humanistic psychotherapy approaches may empower individuals to accept responsibility for their actions and recognize their capacity to overcome challenges.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is often utilized to teach clients mindfulness, emotional control, and distress tolerance skills through a workbook, assignments, and therapeutic support. 
  • Trauma therapy: Although there are many types of trauma therapy, many focus on supporting clients in overcoming trauma-related disorders as they heal from traumatic events.
  • Interpersonal therapy: IPT gives tools for managing conditions that involve difficulties in everyday interactions with other people.  
  • Supportive psychotherapy: When emotional problems arise from environmental issues, like poverty, this form of therapy helps control emotions and provides coping mechanisms to treat challenges. This form of therapy is popularly used with certain forms of stress disorder.

When to see a psychotherapist

Many people living with a mental health condition may benefit from psychotherapy, but you don't necessarily need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to seek treatment. A psychotherapist may understand that there are times when daily life can feel overwhelming. 

For instance, individuals may seek support after experiencing a significant life change, like the arrival of a new baby, a career change, or the loss of a loved one. Therapy may help provide individuals with the tools to overcome challenges, improve unhealthy reactions to conflict or stress, change behavioral patterns, make healthy lifestyle improvements, improve community functioning, and achieve their goals.

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What to expect

Psychotherapy sessions may be performed individually, in a group, or as a couple. Each session often lasts between 30 to 60 minutes, although group sessions may be longer. Often, these sessions include one therapist. Your therapist may begin by taking inventory of your functional behaviors of concern to determine which strategies will be most effective for you. They also may assign homework between sessions or offer you challenges to complete. The first psychotherapy session may allow you to get to know your therapist and discuss your symptoms or concerns. During the first session, you might consider asking questions such as the following:

  • Are you licensed to practice therapy? 
  • Are you able to prescribe medication? 
  • What type of therapy do you practice? 
  • What approach do you take to treatment?
  • How many years of experience do you have?
  • Do you assign homework? 

After you have undergone psychotherapy for a few sessions you will have an easier time understanding it and be able to determine if a therapist is a suitable fit for your needs. 

How much does psychotherapy cost?

The cost of psychotherapy varies based on the type of provider you see and whether they accept insurance. Forbes states the average cost of in-person talk therapy within the US is $100 to $200. Some providers also accept insurance plans. Therapists who don't accept health insurance may work on a sliding (income-based) scale or offer payment plans. You may also find affordable therapy online.

Counseling options

If you are interested in meeting with a therapist, you might feel concerned about the price or availability of providers in your area. In these cases, you might consider online psychotherapy. Online therapy can offer increased convenience and affordability compared to in-person therapy options. Sessions can be attended from the comfort of home after regular business hours, which may make it easier for busy individuals to fit therapy into their weekly schedule. People seeking help with immediate issues may prefer an online platform like BetterHelp, where you can be connected with a licensed counselor quickly and avoid the extended wait time of an in-office visit. Additionally, you can choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions with your licensed therapist. 

The American Psychiatric Association states that cognitive behavioral therapy has shown effectiveness in modern formats such as telehealth. Research on online therapy methods like internet cognitive-behavioral therapy (iCBT) confirms that online therapy may be as effective as in-person therapy for mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), adjustment disorder, and substance use disorders. To connect with a supportive therapist online, consider scheduling a session through a platform like BetterHelp, which offers over 30,000 licensed professionals.

Reviews

Many individuals experiencing mental health challenges have used BetterHelp to connect with a licensed therapist. Below are a few testimonials from people who’ve used BetterHelp:

“Jo-Ann has been an absolutely amazing counsellor in every way! From the first session on, I felt completely comfortable to talk to her about everything and always felt heard, understood and well advised in everything. She has really helped me learn how to handle my depression and other issues in life better through listening, talking things through and equipping me with practical and applicable tools that I could use for the specific situations and issues. She has continually cheered me up, made me feel like she believes in me and has been so kind and caring, while not shying away from the more difficult questions, really getting me to look at things closer and discover the roots of my problems. I am incredibly grateful for having her as my counsellor and can wholeheartedly recommend her!”

Jo-Ann Anstett, LCMHC, LMHC

“I have been so thankful for the journey with Stephanie. Stephanie has been fantastic and would highly recommend engaging with her especially if you are someone who is new to counseling and/or slightly skeptical of counselling! My perception has completely altered and I am so thankful for the positive thought provoking sessions. At times it was challenging but in a great way to stimulate growth and I have always felt safe and trusting. Stephanie has been patient, allowing me to grow and change my mindset in regards to allowing counselling to be a positive experience with a focus on growth and self care. Thank you so much Stephanie!!”

Takeaway

Many mental health providers are available to support individuals with mental health challenges, including licensed counselors and social workers. If you seek mental health support, consider identifying the type of psychotherapist you'd like to meet with and the types of therapy that stand out most to you. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional for further guidance and support when ready.

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