It wasn't long ago that going to therapy was something that felt taboo and was only discussed in hushed tones. These days, more and more people are discovering the many benefits of seeing a therapist and are thriving as a result. Whether you need help working through personal issues, are looking for a mediator to navigate tricky family situations or simply enjoy an unbiased sounding board, therapy can be different things to different people.
As such, so too are there different types of therapists and therapy. Before you begin your search for a great therapist, it’s important to think about the kind you’re looking for, what you're looking to get out of your sessions, and the type of therapy best suited to your needs and goals. There are a variety of options out there, so doing your homework ahead of time will increase the chances of finding a good match.
What Kind of Therapist Is Right for Me?
Ph.D., Psy.D., C.S.W., L.P.C.—what do all those acronyms mean? Although it can be confusing, not all therapists are the same. Coming from a variety of backgrounds and training, it's important to know which one you're looking for as you seek out the right fit.
- Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health and can prescribe medication, if needed. They are trained to monitor the effects of mental health issues and medication(s) on the body. Because they are physicians, psychiatrists can perform a wide variety of medical and psychological tests to help form a complete picture of a patient’s mental and physical condition.
- Psychologist: This person usually has a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) and is trained to understand the connection between the mind and behavior. They can offer counseling and psychotherapy and help treat mental disorders, but cannot prescribe medication. Psychologists help patients in a variety of ways, including overcoming addiction, managing chronic illness and dealing with mental health issues such as depression.
- Social worker: A clinical social worker (C.S.W.) can assess, diagnose and help treat mental illness through therapy. They focus not only on the individual patient, but also expand to the greater community to which the patient belongs, including the family. A patient’s home environment plays a substantial role in therapy. Clinical social workers can be found in hospitals, private practice settings, community health organizations, schools and the criminal justice system.
- Licensed professional counselor: Licensed professional counselors, or L.P.Cs, are masters-degreed mental health service providers trained to work with individuals and families. They provide a client-centered approach to therapy. A L.P.C. provides psychotherapeutic services, but focuses more narrowly on the individual patient and their decision-making process to help achieve their goals.
What Type of Therapy Is Best For Me?
First, consider the kinds of issues on which you want to work. Are you struggling with events from your past, relationships in the present or current thinking patterns? The answer to those questions will help determine which kind of therapy you’ll want to pursue. Most therapists specialize in specific types, so deciding which kind of therapist you want to see and then the type of therapy you want to pursue will narrow down your choices.
- Psychodynamic: This type of therapy focuses less on behavior and more on the interpretation of mental and emotional processes. The goal is to help clients find patterns in their emotions, thoughts and beliefs, which could go back as far as childhood. Rather than having a specific agenda, sessions are open-ended and the therapist encourages the client to speak freely about what’s on their mind. This therapy can be helpful if you’re struggling with past issues.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to be a short-term form of treatment that focuses less on the past and more on changing current thought patterns. This happens by developing problem-solving skills, recognizing distortions in thinking that are causing issues and facing fears instead of avoiding them. Clients learn coping skills during sessions and are often given homework in between sessions. This therapy can be helpful for those struggling with anxiety or depression.
- Trauma therapy: This is a form of talk therapy designed to treat the mental and emotional effects of trauma. The goal is to help the client deal with the reality of the event and help regain their power to deal with the resulting feelings effectively. Trauma therapists are specifically trained to deal with these experiences.
- Interpersonal therapy: The goal of this therapy is to help the client better communicate with others and address issues that are negatively affecting their mental health. The focus is on immediate difficulties interacting with others, rather than on an exploration of past issues. This therapy is primarily used to treat depression.
These days, therapy can take on a variety of forms, so it’s important to do your homework before scheduling with a provider. In-person sessions are still most common, but telehealth appointments are on the rise as a convenient option. Don’t be surprised if it takes time to find the right person with the style that best meets your needs. Researching your options is time well-spent, since seeking help from a therapist is a smart way to manage your mental health.