What Therapists Do and When to See One

Man talking with therapist in therapy

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A therapist is a broad designation that refers to professionals who are trained to provide treatment and rehabilitation. The term is often applied to psychologists, but it can include others who provide a variety of services, including social workers, counselors, life coaches, and many others. 

The term therapist is not a protected occupational title, but there are many types of therapists who do need to be licensed in order to practice. This includes occupational therapists and marriage and family therapists.

Your therapist, sometimes known as a psychotherapist or counselor, is an important part of your treatment team to overcome your mental health issue. Here is a brief look at exactly what to expect from your therapist or counselor.

Types of Therapists

There are many different types of therapists. Some of these include:

  • Addiction therapists
  • Art therapists
  • Child therapists
  • Massage therapists
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Music therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Psychotherapists
  • Yoga therapists

Psychotherapists come from diverse disciplines, including psychiatric nurses, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Many therapists specialize in a particular area of expertise such as:

  • Behavioral disorders
  • Community mental health
  • School and career
  • Rehabilitation
  • Substance abuse

Some specializations require additional training and certifications. Others can be practiced by anyone meeting the general requirements for counselors in their state.

Your therapist's level of education largely depends on the requirements of your mental health facility and state laws. A licensed counselor or therapist usually holds at least a master’s degree and has undergone a supervised internship and a state licensure exam.

However, most states allow bachelor's-level counselors to practice under the supervision of a psychologist or licensed therapist. Some counselors have training in fields such as addictions or techniques such as art therapy.

No single approach defines a therapist or counselor. Therapists may prefer a single school of thought, such as behaviorism or cognitivism, or may favor a more eclectic approach. Many general counselors modify their approach to fit the individual client. Therefore, your treatment plan may be far different than a friend’s, even if you see the same therapist.

Reasons to See a Therapist

There are many reasons why you might want to talk to a therapist. Experiencing symptoms related to a mental health condition is one major reason why people decide to see a therapist. Some reasons to talk to a therapist include:

  • Anxiety
  • Behavior issues
  • Depression
  • Difficulty coping with life changes
  • Eating disorder symptoms
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Grief
  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative thinking
  • Problems coping with a chronic illness
  • Problems sleeping
  • Questions about sexuality or gender identity
  • Relationship issues
  • Social issues
  • Stress
  • Substance or alcohol issues
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • Trauma

However, it is important to remember that anyone who is experiencing stress or who wants to overcome an issue that might be holding them back can benefit. You don't need to wait until something is causing you significant distress or interfering with your ability to function to reach out.

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How to Find a Therapist

Finding a therapist can be challenging. In order for the partnership to be a success, there must be rapport and trust. You will need to choose a therapist who has experience in the area you would like to work on and who shares your goals with regards to treatment.

A good first step is to ask your insurance company about coverage and to get a list of therapists who are in your network. You can also ask for referrals from your primary care physician or other trusted medical health providers. Friends and family can also offer recommendations, but keep in mind that what is right for your friend may not be right for you.

In addition, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies and the American Psychological Association both offer online resources to help you find a therapist.

When you call potential therapists, have a prepared list of questions, including:

  • Are you licensed?
  • What kind of training have you received?
  • What is your specialty or area of expertise?
  • What is your treatment orientation?
  • What is the cost per session?
  • How does scheduling work?
  • Will therapy be time-limited or long-term?

It may also be helpful to "interview" a new therapist and, if you don't click, to try a new one.

Impact of Therapists

A therapist can help people effectively make positive changes in their lives. The impact that a therapist has on your life can depend upon a range of factors including the severity of your symptoms and the type of treatment that you receive. Some ways that you might benefit from seeing a therapist include:

  • Adopting habits that may lead to better physical and mental health
  • Building a better awareness of your own thoughts and how those thoughts contribute to your behaviors
  • Exploring your actions and thoughts from a different perspective
  • Feeling supported and understood
  • Gaining greater insight into your experiences and behaviors
  • Gaining greater self-awareness
  • Improving your relationships with others
  • Learning new coping skills that will help you manage stress more effectively
  • Sharing your fear, burdens, and worries with a neutral, caring person

Just how effective is therapy? Research suggests that psychotherapy can be effective in treating mental health conditions. Compared to medications, psychotherapy has fewer side effects and lower rates of relapse once treatment is stopped. It can also help people develop new coping skills that can promote resilience.

What to Expect

It's normal to have doubts and fears if you have never visited a therapist before. You may wonder what to expect. A trip to the therapist is very much like a trip to the doctor.

First, you'll check in with a receptionist or just sit in the therapist's waiting area for your appointment and fill out some paperwork, including your medical history (including symptoms and current medications), insurance forms, HIPAA forms, therapist-patient services agreement, and a record release form.

During your first visit, your therapist will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and what you hope to achieve from therapy
  • Conduct an interview, known as an intake interview, which is a psychological version of a physical examination
  • Provide a treatment plan, including a diagnosis, goals of therapy, techniques to achieve those goals, and an estimate of the number of sessions needed
  • Schedule a subsequent appointment, or provide a referral to a specialist or for diagnostic testing

Potential Pitfalls

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the therapist-client relationship simply does not work out. Simple compatibility issues are among the most common reasons for breaking off the relationship.

Before you leave, try to work through your issues with the therapist. Sometimes issues such as transference can make you feel like leaving when, in fact, staying is the best choice. Nonetheless, ​divorcing your therapist need not be a painful or difficult process.

If compatibility issues are an obstacle or if you feel like the current approach isn't working, talk to your therapist about seeing a different provider or switching to a different approach.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. What is the difference between psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers?

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How to become a substance abuse, behavioral disorder, or mental health counselor. Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  3. Novotney A. The therapist effect. Monitor on Psychology. 2013;44(2):48.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.