Psychotherapist: Your Personal Interaction & Mental Health Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a psychotherapist?

A psychotherapist is a healthcare provider who specializes in the mental health needs of people of all ages. Psychotherapists use psychotherapy, or talk therapy, to help people overcome psychological problems, improve their relationships, and increase their mental well-being. A variety of healthcare providers practice psychotherapy, including psychiatrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners, clinical social workers, counselors, and marriage and family therapists.

A psychotherapist typically: 

  • Evaluates a patient’s mental and emotional health

  • Performs risk assessments and personality tests

  • Provides individual, group, family, and couples or marriage counseling

  • Develops treatment plans for patients and re-evaluates and modifies these plans as needed

  • Provides patients with skills to help them cope with or overcome many of life's challenges

  • Diagnoses and treats a variety of mental health disorders

  • Maintains strict patient confidentiality, unless patients are at risk of hurting themselves or others

  • Commits patients in involuntary, emergency situations in which a patient is a threat to himself or herself or others

A psychotherapist may also be known by the following names: therapist, mental health therapist, counselor, psychoanalyst, social worker, psychologist, and psychiatrist.

Who should see a psychotherapist?

Anyone with personal challenges or problems with unhealthy thoughts, feelings or behaviors may benefit from seeing a psychotherapist. People also seek care from a psychotherapist to help them feel more satisfied in life. A psychotherapist can help you work through difficult or failed relationships, grief and loss, sexual identity concerns, trauma, decision-making dilemmas, and self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.

Psychotherapists also work with people who suffer from mental disorders. Anyone who has or may have a mental health disorder should consider seeking care from a psychotherapist. Psychotherapists can help you understand and control mental health disorders.

When should you see a psychotherapist?

Consider seeking care from an experienced psychotherapist if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions including but not limited to:

  • Difficulty functioning at home, work or school

  • Difficulty establishing or maintaining relationships

  • Difficulty sleeping or changes in sleep patterns

  • Overeating or undereating

  • Overwhelming anxiety, panic or stress

  • Unusual anger or hostility towards others or yourself

  • Unusual sadness, excessive crying, or depressed feelings that will not go away

You may also benefit from seeing a psychotherapist under the following situations:

  • You abuse alcohol or drugs.

  • You are going through a major life change, such as job loss, disability, divorce, serious illness, or loss of a loved one.

  • You have a behavioral problem.

  • You have relationship problems at home, work, or school, or in social settings.

  • You suffer from physical, verbal, or sexual abuse.

You should seek immediate help from a mental health provider (counselor, social worker, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist) or call 911 if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, or if you or someone you know is considering suicide.

What conditions and diseases does a psychotherapist treat?

A psychotherapist treats a variety of conditions including:

  • Abuse and neglect including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and child or elder neglect

  • Addiction including alcohol, drug, sex, gambling, gaming and internet addictions

  • Childhood and adolescent problems including body image disorders, self-esteem problems, and oppositional defiant disorder

  • Eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder

  • Mental disorders including depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia

  • Relationship problems including caregiving, family or marital conflict, infidelity, divorce, intimacy, sexuality, gender identity, and anger issues

  • Sleep disorders including insomnia, nightmares, and sleepwalking

  • Trauma and major life issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress from health problems, or grief from death of a loved one

What tests does a psychotherapist perform or order?

A psychotherapist can perform or order a variety of tests depending on the setting, the psychotherapist’s level of training, and whether the psychotherapist is treating an adult or child. Tests most often consist of patient interviews, written assessments and inventories, and direct observation. Tests may include:

  • Cognitive tests including intelligence (IQ) tests and interest, aptitude, and achievement assessments

  • Mental health assessments and evaluations including tests to identify mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, and evaluate treatment progress

  • Personality tests including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Rorschach inkblot test

  • Substance abuse tests including alcohol and drug evaluations

  • Suicide risk assessments including suicide checklists

What procedures and treatments does a psychotherapist perform or order?

Psychotherapists specialize in using psychotherapy to help people address psychological or emotional issues. Psychotherapy uses talk therapy, or some other form of communication, to help people understand themselves and their issues or problems.

Psychotherapy also gives people strategies for recognizing and dealing with unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Because this type of interaction involves high levels of trust and confidence, psychotherapy depends on a comfortable relationship between the patient and the therapist.

Psychotherapy can take the form of individual, couples, family and group therapy. There are also a variety of approaches to psychotherapy. Familiarize yourself with these approaches and work with a psychotherapist who can best meet your individual needs. Approaches to psychotherapy include:   

  • Animal-assisted therapy uses companion animals to help encourage communication, cope with emotions, and develop empathy. This type of therapy may be particularly useful for children, elderly patients, and the mentally disabled.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on a person’s thought patterns and beliefs and how they affect his or her actions, emotions and behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to replace unhealthy or dysfunctional thinking, emotions and behaviors with realistic thinking patterns and effective behaviors. People learn skills to identify and change their beliefs and behaviors.

  • Expressive therapy uses creative arts as the form of communication. This form of therapy is based on self-healing by expressing oneself through art, music, dance, writing, or other creative art.

  • Humanistic therapy focuses on personal responsibility, self-determination, and free will to attain maximum personal potential. This type of therapy stresses the psychotherapist’s role as a guide and not as an authority figure.

  • Integrative or holistic therapy combines aspects of various types of psychotherapy to meet individual needs.

  • Interpersonal therapy focuses on improving communication with others and learning healthy ways of relating to other people. Interpersonal therapy helps people identify how they interact with others and change behaviors that lead to problems. This therapy is often used to work through interpersonal issues including grief and life transitions.

  • Play therapy allows children to communicate with their psychotherapist through toys and games. Playing and acting out helps children identify and talk about their feelings.

  • Psychoanalysis focuses on the subconscious and how unrecognized motivations, conflicts, experiences and beliefs affect a person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors. The psychotherapist leads people through an in-depth investigation of their subconscious mind, dreams, and past actions and experiences. The goal is to change patterns of behavior or thoughts by identifying and understanding the subconscious mind. Psychoanalysis is an intense form of psychodynamic therapy.

  • Psychodynamic therapy focuses on childhood, early life experiences, and unresolved struggles that influence a person’s personality and identity. This type of therapy seeks to change behaviors or thoughts by resolving unhealthy patterns of behavior learned earlier in life.

Psychotherapist training and certification

In the United States, the practice of psychotherapy is regulated by individual states and licensing requirements vary considerably from state to state. In most states, the term “psychotherapist” is not regulated and anyone can use it. Instead, the various professions practicing psychotherapy are regulated and licensed. For this reason, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the types of providers who practice psychotherapy and verify a psychotherapist’s licensure if needed.

While licensure is the legal ability to practice a mental health profession, certification is a voluntary process that recognizes a practitioner’s expertise. Board certification verifies that a provider has completed training and has passed competency examinations.

Healthcare professionals who may practice psychotherapy include:

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP): An NP who practices psychotherapy is a licensed nurse practitioner who has earned a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing, completed a clinical internship in psychotherapy, and passed a licensing exam. NPs may seek certification through the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

  • Psychiatrists: A board-certified psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who has completed specialized residency training in psychiatry following medical school, and has passed a certification exam that validates the doctor’s specialized knowledge and skills in psychiatry. To maintain board certification in psychiatry, a doctor must participate in the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology’s Maintenance of Certification program.

  • Psychologist (PhD, PsyD, or EdD): A board-certified psychologist is a licensed psychologist who has earned a doctoral degree, completed supervised postdoctoral training, and passed a certification exam that validates the psychologist’s specialized knowledge and skills.

  • Psychological Associate: A licensed psychological associate (LPA) is a provider who has earned a master’s degree in psychology, completed supervised post-degree training, and passed a licensing exam. LPAs may seek certification through the Professional Psychologist Certification Board.

  • Professional Counselor: A licensed professional counselor (LPC) is a provider who has earned a master’s or doctoral degree in counseling, completed supervised post-degree training, and passed a licensing exam. LPCs may seek certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors.

  • Clinical Social Worker: A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW, or LSW) is a provider who has earned a master’s or doctoral degree in social work, completed supervised post-degree training, and passed a licensing exam. LCSWs may seek certification through the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work.

  • Marriage and Family Therapist: A licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) has earned a master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family counseling, completed post-degree training, and passed a licensing exam.

When considering psychotherapy, be sure to ask a provider about the details of his or her training, education, licensure and certification.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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