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

Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
Two women sitting close and discussing things

Updated on 11/30/2020

Therapists, or psychotherapists, are licensed mental health professionals who specialize in helping clients develop better cognitive and emotional skills, reduce symptoms of mental illness, and cope with various life challenges to improve their lives. But that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a psychotherapist. To completely understand what a therapist does, it’s important to understand various therapeutic approaches, licensure, and titles.

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 the  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 was a little different, but together they paint a picture of what a therapist is. Here are some of the answers:

“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 work together with clients, whether in-person or via online therapy, to remedy symptoms of their mental health. Some therapists, however, work in a clinical research or consulting setting.

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?

“Therapist” is an all encompassing  term referring to psychotherapists, psychologists, and counselors. In the context of working with a client to improve their mental health and well-being, these terms all carry the same meaning and are usually 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.

People often use these terms interchangeably with “therapist”:

  • Counselor
  • Mental Health Counselor
  • Psychologist
  • Psychotherapist (this term differentiates mental health therapists from physical, occupational, massage or other types of therapists who aren’t in the mental health field)

The differences between some of these terms lie in their connotations aside from working with clients. While “therapist” tends to  refer to someone who treats clients, a “psychologist” would typically  work in a research setting as well as with clients.

Some mental health professionals call themselves psychologists simply because they prefer the term. Their work isn’t necessarily different than therapists’. Others use the term to emphasize a background in research or their education. Some psychologists don’t spend any time working with clients and focus solely on research.

Psychiatrists can act as therapists, too. They are trained physicians specialized at mental health medicine. They’re the only type of therapists that are certified to prescribe medication. There isn’t evidence that suggests professionals who identify as therapists provide better care than professionals identifying as psychologists or psychiatrists. In most cases, each of these professionals works to address different issues via different methods. 

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 their peer with only a master’s degree in a small town.

What Kind of Education and Licensing Does a Therapist Need?

Noor Pinna therapist license

All therapists are required to have completed a master’s degree and be licensed by their state boards to legally practice psychotherapy. There are several types of licenses, and each specifies a service the professional is allowed to provide. These licenses are provided by the state and include the following::

  • 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]

These licenses allow therapists to practice psychotherapy only in the state or states in which they’re licensed. The license does, however, allow them to practice therapy online and work with clients in any foreign country via an online therapy modality.

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

Therapists have clinical experience and can also serve as social workers. On the other hand, social workers don’t have clinical experience or a therapist license and therefore cannot work as therapists.

Where Do Therapists Work?

With some types of professionals, it’s easy to imagine where they work. Lawyers typically work at law firms, police officers work at a police station and on their beat, and doctors tend to patients in hospitals.

With therapists, it’s harder because they can work at various locations, depending on their line of work and the types of clients they see. Here are some of the most common locations and a description of the kind of work therapists do there:

  • Community Center: working with clients of certain underprivileged communities or with groups struggling with issues like addiction
  • Hospital: treating clients with severe mental health issues that require hospitalization or providing mental health support to hospital patients with medical issues
  • Mental Health Clinic: 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: online therapy allows therapists to do their work anywhere and anytime
  • Private Practice: treating various clients from around a specific physical location
  • 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 to support their transition to college, academic stress, and help with mental heal conditions
  • Workplace: some companies and organizations hire therapists to work with their employees. Research has shown that strong employee mental health increases productivity.

Misconceptions About What a Therapist Is

To fully understand what a therapist is, we need to talk about what a therapist is not. There are many misconceptions about what it means to practice psychotherapy. Here are a few common misconceptions:

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. Many have decades of practice working with and helping clients.

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 necessary skills to live better lives and make positive decisions to prevent relapse. Working with a therapist is supposed to empower you to cope with your issues yourself, rather than make you dependent on them for support.

Misconception: A Therapist Can Read Minds

Therapists aren’t trying to guess what you’re thinking or get inside your head.

Your therapist will be interested in what you are thinking because he or she is trying to help you. The process of talk therapy requires you to share details about your life and daily struggles in order to make progress and resolve your issues. They only know what you share with them, and that’s also what makes them different from your friends or loved ones. The more you share with your therapist, the stronger the bond you’ll forge and the more progress you will make on the issues you need help with.

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

freud looking back pipe

Sigmund Freud was the first to apply scientific study to mental health and developed psychoanalysis and other theories for the treatment of mental health symptoms. But Freud’s stance maintained that therapists and psychiatrists were doctors whose sole role was in treating mental illness, which isn’t necessarily the definition that we’re familiar with today, where therapists can be as much there for support when things are going well as when they aren’t. 

Therapy has evolved a lot since Freud, and talk therapy has become more prominent and sustainable than Freud’s theories and practice of psychoanalysis. There’s since been a shift in the profession, which now puts more emphasis on the clients holistic well-being than just on their immediate symptoms. Client-centered therapy approaches, like Carl Rogers’s work, focusing on the human experience and as experts on their own issues, rather than simply on their symptoms. Today most therapists use an integrated approach that treats mental illness, the most common psychotherapeutic approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy.

The term “therapist” also varies individually between therapists as 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.”

Over the years Neo’s practice has shifted to also include helping people accept themselves and develop a sense of self-worth. She believes her approach to therapy will continue to evolve as she grows alongside her clients.

As Neo and thousands of other therapists around the world continue to evolve their personal approach to therapy and to expand the range of services available to clients, the term “therapist” will continue to take more meaning. Nonetheless, technological advances are also expanding the definition of what it means to be a therapist, with the advent of online therapy as an effective psychotherapeutic intervention.

For many decades, being a therapist only meant meeting with a client in-person and using verbal communications to address their condition. Today, online therapy allows therapists to communicate with clients anywhere and anytime. Talkspace enables therapists to message their clients, offering various types of therapies via text, video, or audio message, and even to schedule live video sessions.

As technology and the field of psychotherapy continues to evolve, the definition and scope of what a “therapist” does and how will continue to expand. Still, one part of a therapist’s role will always be central: helping clients live better lives

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