What Is a Therapist [Psychotherapist]? – The Complete Definition

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A therapist [psychotherapist] is a licensed mental health professional who helps clients improve their lives, develop better cognitive and emotional skills, reduce symptoms of mental illness and cope with various challenges. But that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a psychotherapist. To completely understand the definition of a therapist, you need to learn much more.

This article breaks down every part of what therapists are and what they do. Keep reading if you’re interested in working with a therapist, becoming one or simply learning about an interesting profession.

How Therapists Define What They Are and What They Do

To better understand what a therapist is, we asked the titular question of this article to several therapists in and outside of the Talkspace network. Each answer is at least a little different. Together they paint a picture of what a therapist is.

“A therapist serves as an authentic, genuine, empathic individual who is unbiased, supportive, and, can provide objective, nonjudgemental guidance, assisting clients with desired changes as well as achieving their maximum self.” – Kate Denihan, Talkspace Therapist

Shannon McFarlin Talkspace Therapist
Shannon McFarlin, Talkspace therapist and Director of Clinical Experience

“A psychotherapist is someone who helps others find their strengths and courage to confront and make sense of difficult emotions and experiences so they can learn and thrive in their lives” – Shannon McFarlin, Talkspace Therapist

“A psychotherapist is someone who offers support, positive regard, compassion, guidance, a level of accountability, advocacy at times, a listening ear and sound clinical advice.” – Candice Christiansen, CMHC

“A clinically trained helper who uses an integrative approach to help others heal” – Shannon Battle, LPC

“To me a psychotherapist is an objective sounding board, a perspective shifter, game changer, a truth teller.” – Erika Martinez, Psy.D.

“A psychotherapist is someone who helps people to remember they are worthy.” – Perpetua Neo, Therapist

What Does a Therapist Do?

Therapists primarily help clients improve their mental health. Some of them work in research and consulting as well.

Here is a list of common services therapists can offer clients:

  • Listening
  • Analyzing present issues
  • Analyzing the influence of the past on the present
  • Comforting clients
  • Helping clients without the kind of a bias a friend or family member might have
  • Diagnosing mental health conditions
  • Reducing symptoms of mental illness
  • Helping clients manage symptoms of mental illness
  • Helping clients change maladaptive behaviors and thinking patterns
  • Helping clients understand themselves and other people
  • Teaching emotional, cognitive and communication skills
  • Teaching clients how to effectively resolve emotional, relational and professional conflicts
  • Guiding clients through crises such as breakups, abuse, suicidal thoughts, grief, trauma, infidelity, sexual assault and more
  • Teaching clients how to improve current relationships and build new ones
  • Teaching clients self-help skills such as deep breathing, meditation, thinking exercises and more
  • Offering non-directive advice and suggestions (depending on the therapist)
  • Referring clients to psychiatrists, mental health facilities or medical professionals if necessary
  • Helping clients learn to love and accept themselves
  • Reducing the stigma and shame of mental illness and therapy

Is a Therapist the Same as a Counselor, Psychologist, etc?

When people say “therapist,” they are usually referring to a psychotherapist, psychologist or counselor. In the context of working with clients to improve their mental health, these terms have the same meaning and are interchangeable.

Using one over the other is a matter of preference. “Counselor” and “counseling,” for example, are more common than “therapy” and “therapist” in certain parts of the world.

Here is a short list of terms people often use as a synonym for “therapist”:

  • Counselor
  • Mental Health Counselor
  • Psychologist
  • Psychotherapist (The meaning is the same, but some people regard “therapist” as a shortened and more easily useable version of “psychotherapist.” The term is useful because “therapist” could refer to a massage therapist or another type of professional.)

The differences between some of these terms lie in their connotations outside the context of working with clients. “Therapist” only refers to someone who treats clients. On the other hand, a psychologist could spend a lot of time seeing clients but is more likely to work in research as well.

Some mental health professionals call themselves “psychologists” simply because they prefer the term. Their work doesn’t have to be different than a therapist’s. Others use the term to emphasize a background in research or imply they have a lot of education. There are even some psychologists who don’t spend any time working with clients.

There are also psychiatrists who can act as a therapist or who identify as a therapist in addition to their primary profession. There isn’t any evidence to suggest someone who identifies as a therapist would provide significantly better care than someone who identifies as a psychologist or other mental health profession.

What Is a Therapist’s Salary?

The range of a therapist’s salary varies depending on education level, additional credentials, location, the types of clients they see and the environment they work in. The lowest point is around $30,000 a year and the highest is upward of $129,000. A therapist with a Ph.D. in New York City, for example would make a lot more than one with a master’s degree in a small town.

What Kind of Education and Licensing Does a Therapist Need?

Noor Pinna therapist license

All therapists need a master’s level education and a license to legally practice psychotherapy. The type of license plays a role in answering the question of what a therapist is. If you wanted to be technical rather than getting into the broad meaning of a therapist, you could answer the question with these license/education types:

  • Doctor of Psychology [Psy.D.]
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker [LCSW]
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist [LMFT]
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor [LMHC]
  • Licensed Professional Counselor [LPC]

Theses licenses allow therapists to practice in the state or states in which they received them. Therapists often use online therapy to work with clients who live in states outside their licensure, but it’s not clear whether this practice is legal. The license does, however, allow them to use online therapy to work with clients in any foreign country.

Some of the social work licenses raise the issue of the similarities between a therapist and social worker. Both involve helping people live better lives, but there are key differences between the professions.

A social worker without clinical experience cannot be a therapist. On the other hand, a social worker with clinical experience and a therapist license is both a therapist and a social worker.

Where Do Therapists Work?

With some types of professionals, it’s easy to imagine where they work. Lawyers work at a law firm, firefighters go to a firehouse and police officers use a police station.

With therapists it’s harder because they work in several locations depending on their line of work and the types of clients they see. Here are some of the common locations and the kind of work therapists would do at these locations:

  • Community Center — working with clients of certain underprivileged communities or clients who gather around an issues such as addiction
  • Hospital — treating clients with severe mental health issues that required hospitalization or providing mental health support to hospital patients with various medical issues
  • Mental Health Clinic — There are federally-funded centers and clinics that provide discounted or free mental health care.
  • Military Facility — helping military personnel deal with occupational or combat-related stress and trauma
  • Online/anywhere — online therapy allows therapists to do their work anywhere and anytime
  • Private Practice — treating various clients from around the area
  • Psychiatric Hospital — treating patients with severe mental health conditions that have made them unable to live normal lives
  • Schools and Universities — working with students on campus
  • Workplace — Some companies and organizations hire therapists to work in their offices and see employees. There are also therapists who have administrative or leadership positions in companies and organizations.

Misconceptions About What a Therapist Is

To fully understand what a therapist is, we need to talk about what it isn’t. There are many misconceptions people have about what it means to be a psychotherapist. Here are a few of them:

Misconception: A Therapist Is Like a Friend You Pay to Listen To You

female friends bench not therapy

Thinking a therapist is only a friend for hire discounts the amount of education and training therapists complete so they can improve clients’ mental health. Most therapists have around six years of education. Some have more than a decade.

Misconception: A Therapist Tells You What To Do

Most therapists will not tell you what to do. They’re not like sports coaches for your life. They don’t sit on the sidelines and shout instructions.

Therapists work with clients to give them the skills to live better lives and make good decisions. They are supposed to empower you, not make you dependent on them.

Misconception: A Therapist Can Read Minds

Therapists aren’t trying to guess what you’re thinking or analyze you for kicks. No one is looking at your life like a Dateline documentary or a Lifetime movie.

Your therapist will be interested in what you are thinking because he or she is trying to help you. Therapists are much different than prosecutors, psychics or interrogators.

The Definition of a Psychotherapist Has Changed Since Freud and Is Continuing to Change

freud looking back pipe

Because Freud was a doctor and psychiatrist, his role as a therapist was treating mental illness. Therapists were more like mental health doctors rather than people who helped clients live better lives and develop skills to improve coping and relationships.

As psychologists such as Carl Rogers — the father of client-centered therapy — influenced the field of psychotherapy, therapists focused more on treating clients as human beings, not only their symptoms. Today most therapists use an integrated approach that treats mental illness, explores who the client is and teaches skills.

Changing the definition of a psychotherapist isn’t only about pioneers such as Carl Rogers, though. Every therapist has a story of how their role evolved throughout their career.

Their current definition of being a therapist is different than the one they carried during their training and the beginning of their careers. Every therapist contributes to a constantly expanding and evolving definition of the profession.

“Early on it was all about helping people to solve problems,” said therapist Perpetua Neo. “I approached it in a practical sense.”

Then her practice of psychotherapy evolved to include helping people accept themselves and develop a sense of self-worth. She believes it will continue to evolve as she grows alongside her clients.

As Neo and the thousands of therapists around the world evolve their personal definition of a psychotherapist, a wider range of services will be available to clients. Advances in technology are also expanding the definition of a therapist.

For many decades, being a psychotherapist could only mean meeting with a client in-person and using verbal communications to treat them. Today online therapy allows therapists to communicate with clients anywhere and anytime. Because of the texting modality, talking is not the only way to provide therapy.

As technology and the field of psychotherapy evolves, the definition of a therapist will continue to expand. Nonetheless, one part of a therapist’s role will always be central: helping clients live better lives.

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Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace