The Different Types of Psychotherapists

How to figure out which style is a good fit for you and your needs

A psychotherapist has specialized training in treating mental disorders. They use talk therapy to help people find better ways to cope with emotional issues and overcome unhealthy behaviors or thinking patterns.

Psychotherapists can be psychiatrists or psychologists. A psychiatrist offers therapy, but they are also trained medical doctors who can prescribe medications to treat mental disorders. On the other hand, a psychologist focuses solely on psychotherapy and behavioral interventions.

There’s no consensus on how to group psychotherapists by type, but it may be helpful to think about them as divided into several camps when you’re trying to decide what type you need.

a woman talking to a therapist

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Types of Psychotherapy

There are five types of psychotherapy, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT operates under three basic principles that address the way a person thinks, their patterns of behavior, and how they cope with trauma or psychological problems. For many, unhelpful thinking, behavior, and coping patterns lead to psychological distress, and CBT aims to help patients learn to change their own problematic behaviors, thoughts, and coping mechanisms.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT teaches patients how to accept that their behaviors and experiences are valid and how to change their behaviors to move forward in a positive way. It is designed to rewire the patient’s mind when it comes to coping and reacting to stressful situations or psychological distress.
  • Humanistic therapy: There are three types of humanistic therapy: client-centered, gestalt, and existential therapies. Client-centered therapy revolves around the rejection of the idea that therapists are the experts of their patients' minds. It emphasizes care, interest, and concern in a way that allows people to make their own choices. Gestalt therapy encourages patients to accept that they are responsible for themselves, and it pushes the awareness of being in the moment. Existential therapy focuses heavily on self-determination and free will, as well as the search for meaning in a patient’s life. All three focus on the patient and emphasize their ability to help themselves.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy focuses on how people's past experiences affect their current behavior. It is designed to force patients to look inward and gain self-awareness around their behavioral patterns. In this type of therapy, patients examine past relationships and how they guide their current behaviors.
  • Holistic therapy: Holistic therapy utilizes more than one type of therapy. Psychotherapists who practice holistic therapy take a well-rounded approach by blending different elements of the approaches so that they can personalize treatments to a patient's needs.

Psychotherapy can be helpful for treating many mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, phobias, and personality disorders.

Types of Degrees

There are a number of degrees that psychotherapists can earn, including:

  • Licensed clinical social worker (LCSW): Getting a master’s degree in social work and passing a state licensing exam are typically required to become a licensed clinical social worker. Social workers work with all types of patients, but many specialize in one area, such as adults or children. They also help their clients find other resources in their community.
  • Licensed professional counselor (LPC) or a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC): These psychotherapists hold master’s degrees in counseling or psychology, and they must pass a state licensing exam. They utilize psychotherapy and individual interventions to help patients. 
  • Licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT): These types of psychotherapists focus on treating mental health disorders as they relate to a person’s family and relationships. LMFTs must obtain a master’s degree and two years of clinical experience. They must also pass a state licensing exam. 
  • Doctor of psychology (PsyD; psychologist): Psychotherapists with a doctoral degree in psychology are trained heavily in the scientific study of psychology but use their training in their practice. To be accepted into a PsyD program, students must first get a bachelor’s degree and most likely a master’s degree. The program lasts four to six years. They will also have to be licensed by the state.
  • Doctor of philosophy in psychology (PhD in psychology; psychologist): A PhD in psychology focuses on the scientific research of psychotherapy. Those with this degree tend to go on to research or teaching careers. The program lasts roughly five to eight years after getting a master’s or bachelor’s degree and requires state licensing with an option for certification.  
  • Psychiatrist (MD): Psychiatrists are medical doctors specializing in preventing, diagnosing, and treating mental illness. To become a psychiatrist, a person must attend medical school and complete a residency program.

Specialty

Although there are many types of psychotherapies available, psychotherapists often specialize in specific mental disorders, such as eating disorders or addiction. It’s also possible to find psychotherapists who treat people who have experienced similar life events, such as a psychotherapist who works only with members of the LGBTQ community.

How to Choose

Specific questions you should ask yourself that can help narrow down your search for a psychotherapist include:

  • What type of credentials are important to you: If you’re looking for a psychotherapist who can prescribe medications, you will want to go with a psychiatrist. If you’re looking for help with community advocacy, then a licensed clinical social worker or licensed professional counselor may be best for you.
  • What type of therapy do you need: If you require therapy based on the specific type of mental disorder that you have, it would be best to find someone who specializes in that area.
  • What type of person would work best with you: You may also want to consider your psychotherapist's gender, religion, or age. For example, if you’re a young woman who has experienced trauma, talking to a woman may make you feel more at ease.
  • What type of therapy do you think will work best for you: The approach to therapy is also a vital factor to consider. For example, if you’re looking to overcome a phobia, behavioral therapy may be best. If you’re trying to change unhealthy behaviors, you may want psychodynamic therapy.

Questions to ask

Before meeting your psychotherapist, you may want to ask some general questions to see if they will be a good fit, such as:

  • Are you licensed?
  • What is your level of training?
  • What treatment approach do you use?
  • How many patients have you treated with my specific issue?
  • What is your specialty?
  • How much does each session cost?
  • Can you provide a prescription if needed?

These questions will help narrow down your search. Getting the right therapist is key to ensuring that the treatment you receive is the type that will work for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much do psychotherapists cost?

The cost of psychotherapists varies depending on your geographic location. Generally, a licensed clinical social worker or a mental health counselor would cost less than a psychologist, and a psychologist would cost less than a psychiatrist.

Which form of psychotherapy has had especially good results in treating phobias and compulsions?

The best type of therapy for phobias and compulsions is behavioral therapy. In the case of phobias, which are irrational fears of or aversions to specific objects or situations, desensitization therapy will work. Desensitization therapy exposes people to their phobia until they are no longer scared.

In the case of compulsions, which are repetitive rule-bound behaviors, operant conditioning may be used to help reward a person for avoiding their compulsion. Cognitive therapy is another choice for help with compulsions as it works by addressing the thoughts of the compulsion as opposed to the action itself.

Who invented psychotherapy?

Psychoanalysis was first introduced in the 1800s by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. However, evidence suggests that it has been around for a lot longer. The ancient Greeks were the first to recognize mental illness and attempt to treat it in various ways. 

Summary

Psychotherapists can specialize in specific types of patients and practice different forms of therapy. When looking for a psychotherapist, consider finding one who focuses on the type of therapy that benefits your mental health needs.

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