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How to Become a Therapist

April 7, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Are you considering a career as a therapist, and you want to know what exactly is required?  For instance, do you need an undergraduate degree, master’s degree, or Ph.D., and if so, in which area? What are the different therapy career options?

This article will discuss everything you need to know to become a good therapist, including:

  • The various career options for therapists
  • Academic qualifications
  • Licensing requirements and procedures
  • Necessary skills and qualities;
  • Among others  

What Is a therapist?

A therapist, also known as a psychotherapist, is a licensed mental health specialist who helps clients cope with life’s challenges or mental health illness. They do so by using integrative approaches to help their clients to develop emotional and cognitive skills. 

Is a Therapist the Same as a Counselor or Psychotherapist?

Often the terms counselors, therapists, and psychotherapists are used interchangeably. But are they synonymous? The term “therapist” is an umbrella term used to refer to counselors, psychologists, and psychotherapists, but there are some slight differences in their roles.

Generally, a professional who offers short-term therapy is known as a counselor, while one who offers long-term therapy is known as a psychotherapist. A licensed professional counselor helps their clients deal with a current or recent challenging situation mainly through talking therapy, while psychotherapists help clients deal with psychological problems that have accumulated over time. 

All psychotherapists can work as counselors, but not all counselors can work as a psychotherapist. Counselling mostly incorporates talk therapy, while psychotherapy includes a wider range of therapies.

What is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Therapist?

Psychology undergraduate or postgraduates can work as counselors or psychotherapists. However, to become a licensed psychologist, psychology major graduates must have an advanced degree in psychology- either a Ph.D. or a PsyD. 

Psychologists are better qualified to handle more complex mental health issues such as intense trauma or illnesses such as schizophrenia. Often, they work side to side with psychiatrists. Psychologists who take a PsyD usually offer therapy, while those that take Ph.D. go into research.

What Does Being a Therapist Involve?

Being a therapist involves:

  • Listening to your clients
  • Helping clients analyze issues and their influence on their lives
  • Comforting clients 
  • Diagnosing mental health issues
  • Providing clients with tools and practices to cope with mental health issues
  • Helping clients develop self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-compassion
  • Helping clients to develop emotional, communication, and cognitive skill
  • Offering non-directive suggestions
  • Equipping clients with skills for resolving conflicts and build relationships with other people
  • Working with clients through crises such as abuse, breakups, trauma, grief, sexual assault, etc.
  • Referring clients to mental health doctors (psychiatrists)

What Skills and Qualities Should a Therapist Have?

Besides having essential counseling training and a clear understanding of ethics and laws regarding counseling, you must have certain skills and qualities to become a good therapist. These include: 

A Genuine Interest in Helping People

You need to be compassionate and empathetic and have a genuine commitment to helping your clients overcome or cope with whatever mental or emotional burden they bear.

Attentive and Active Listening

To help your clients, you need to have a clear understanding of what they are going through and the type of support or assistance they seek. You get this understanding by being an attentive listener. Besides, you want your client to feel heard; it affirms them and builds their trust in you.

Respect, Trustworthiness, and Confidentiality

Your clients will be extremely vulnerable to you. Some will tell you things they have never told anyone before. You must honor them by being respectful and upholding confidentiality.

Patience and Resilience

In most cases, change will take time before it takes place. In the case of psychotherapy, it can take months or even years. You need to be patient with your clients and yourself. True progress will be evident with time.

Communication Skills

In the course of your career, you will need to conduct interviews and discuss challenging issues. You need excellent communication skills to be able to question your clients, discuss 

Issues, and offer tools without causing the client further stress or upset.

Interpersonal Skills

Aside from working with clients, you need to also work well with other professionals.

Emotional Stability

Offering therapy can cause you to feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained. As a therapist, you need to take the necessary measures to keep yourself emotionally stable. Take time for self-care and see a therapist if need be.

Open-Mindedness and Being Non-Judgmental

As a therapist, you will encounter all types of people and situations you should be able to tolerate without judgment.

Observational Skills

You should be able to observe your client’s facial expressions, body language, attitude, and behavior to fully understand where they are emotionally and mentally to be able to help them effectively.

Problem-Solving Skills

The main reason people go to counselors is that they feel unable to handle the challenge they are facing on their own, and they think that a therapist would be able to help them. You should have critical thinking skills to help you identify and provide strategies to help the client move forward.

What Are Some Ethical Issues Therapists Face?

As a professional, it is your responsibility to ensure that your interaction with your clients is ethical. Here are some common ethical issues therapists face.

Maintaining Clear Boundaries with Clients

As you continue to engage with your client, especially long termly, some clients may likely begin to get the lines blurred with some wanting a personal relationship with you. You must reinforce the boundaries. 

Furthermore, it is against therapists’ code of ethics to counsel someone they have a relationship with, including family members, friends, or even neighbors.

Professional Ability To Handle Certain Issues

Different types of therapists specialize in a given area. It is not uncommon for therapists to encounter clients who need their services yet the issue at hand is out of their specialty area. In such a case, you should refer them to a therapist who specializes in such issues.

Personal Problems that Hinder Them from Working Effectively

Therapists are human, and they also get overwhelmed with personal problems. In a case where the personal problem is inhibiting your ability to work well, you should either find ways to resolve the issue immediately or refer your clients to another counselor.

Confidentiality

Therapists have a responsibility for maintaining client confidentiality unless the client gives written permission to disburse certain information. Therapists should maintain confidentiality in who their client is and the personal problems they are dealing with. They should also ensure that client sign-up forms, contact information, and session notes are kept safely.

When To Get Authorities Involved

Although you should maintain confidentiality, if the issue is legal, you have the responsibility to inform the authorities, especially if the client possesses an immediate risk to themselves or others. Different states have different stipulations on what kind of information you should report to the authorities.

Types of Therapists

When starting on a career path as a therapist, you must understand the different types of therapists. It will help you narrow down to an area of focus. The type of therapy you choose will influence the following:

  • The type of degree you study
  • The type of licenses you need to get
  • Where you will work
  • The type of issues and mental health illness you can deal with
  • The group of people you will work with in terms of age, income levels, religious backgrounds, sexual orientation, race, individuals, families, couples, etc.

Below is a look at 15 types of therapists

Addiction Therapist

An addiction therapist is a counselor who assists clients with substance abuse to overcome addiction. They may work with the individual or even their families to help them work through addiction-related trauma. Addiction therapists can also work with a number of clients simultaneously in a group setting.

Behavioral Therapist

Behavioral therapists work with individuals with mental health disorders to help them identify and change self-destructive or unhealthy behaviors. Besides having a therapy-related postgraduate degree, behavioral therapists should also have various behavioral therapy techniques, including dialectical behavioral therapy.

Child Therapist

A child therapist works with minors: individuals aged 17 years and younger. They work on a wide range of issues, including mental health issues, behavioral disorders, trauma, emotional problems, anger management, etc.

Cognitive Therapist

Cognitive therapists work with their clients to help them identify unhealthy or problematic thought patterns. They then work with them to build healthier and more empowering thought patterns.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapist

A cognitive behavioral therapist uses a wide range of behavioral therapy techniques and psychotherapeutic techniques to help their clients address a wide range of psychological issues, including substance abuse and mental health illnesses.

Divorce Therapist

A divorce therapist works with couples pre and post-divorce to help them navigate the challenging time. They talk their clients through the emotions and feelings involved as well as plans for moving forward.

Eating Disorder Therapist

Eating disorder therapists work with their clients to help them understand the underlying issues that led to the eating disorder. They also provide them with tools and strategies for behavioral change. They are not only interested in the clients’ mental health but also their physical health.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists work with their clients on a wide range of family and marriage-related issues, including resolving conflict and navigating challenges that they face due to mental health issues within the family. They may work with individuals within the family, couples, or the entire family. They also work with coulees to help them resolve marital issues such as loss of a child, communication breakdown, job loss, or infidelity, among others.

School Therapist

School psychologists work in schools to provide a wide range of services, including guidance and counseling services, behavior management in individual students, and assisting students in planning and preparing for their next steps. For instance, they help high school finalists and their parents with college planning.

Social Therapist

These are sociologists who seek to understand how their interactions influence people’s behavior. They also study the impact of various psychological issues on different groups of people to help develop effective treatment and coping strategies.

Licensed Social Worker 

They mostly offer counseling services and mental health support to marginalized groups. They are also involved in advocacy work for marginalized groups. They also help their clients find the resources they need to live a decent quality of life. They often work in government agencies, hospitals, and not-for-profit organizations to support communities and community members.

Trauma Therapists

These types of therapists are specially trained to handle clients experiencing trauma to help them deal with the stressors. They often work as first responders during natural disasters. They also work with individuals experiencing trauma as a result of abuse or loss of a loved one.

Youth Therapists

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses’ findings, 75% of mental illnesses start by the age of 24. Youth therapists play a crucial role in diagnosing and early intervention. 

Some of the most common mental health issues among college students and youth include suicide, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, addictions, and ADHD.

They work with young adults who are experiencing difficulties in a given area of their life: school-related, work-related, or home-related. They also work with youth to help them with a specific issue. 

Clinical Therapist

Clinical therapists provide their clients with therapeutic interventions to help them cope with difficulties associated with mental illnesses.

Recreational Therapist

A recreational therapist utilizes recreational activities such as arts and crafts to help their clients improve their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Where Do Therapists Work?

Therapists can work in different settings, including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, community health centers, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations. Others go on to set up their own private practice.

How to Become a Therapist

Here is the step-by-step process for becoming a therapist:

  1. Identify the type of therapy you would like to specialize in
  2. Pursue a therapy-related degree course
  3.  Pursue a master’s degree in your specialty area
  4. Complete the required supervised clinical work for your specialty
  5. Meet the requirements for licensing and apply for your license
  6. Continue to develop your soft skills
  7. Renew your therapist license as stipulated in your state
  8. Stay up to date with industry trends and developments 
  9. Network with other therapists and professionals in your field

Educational Requirements to Become a Therapist

To become a US therapist, you must complete a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Some areas of specialization also require a doctorate.

What Are the Bachelor’s Degree Options for Therapists?

The most relevant bachelor’s degree courses for therapists include:

  • Counseling
  • Human services
  • Social work
  • Psychology
  • Recreational therapy
  • Sociology

Generally, these courses take four years to complete. While some universities offer these programs as a Bachelor of Arts (BA), others offer them as Bachelor of Science (B.S). BA courses incorporate more liberal arts units, while BS courses have more science-based courses.

You can easily get entry-level counseling jobs immediately after graduating with your bachelor’s degree in a counseling-related course. However, you will need to further your education if you want to be licensed.

What Are the Master’s Degree Options for Therapists?

A master’s degree allows you to narrow down your area of interest. Most counseling-related master’s programs include course work in human development, counseling techniques, counseling theories, assessment methods, professional ethics, and cultural and social issues.

Master’s degree options for therapists include:

  • Master’s in Counselling 
  • Master’s in Psychotherapy
  • Master’s in Human Services
  • Master’s in Psychology
  • Master’s in Family therapy
  • Master’s in Social work

Different master’s degree programs may have different course concentration options such as:

  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Substance abuse
  • Couple counseling
  • Divorce counseling
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Recreational therapy
  • Mental health and wellness
  • Career and vocational counseling
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Addictions counseling
  • Clinical mental health
  • School and youth 
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Adjustment counseling
  • Expressive therapies

When choosing a school for your bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D., ensure that the programs are credible, and the university is accredited. 

How to Get Licensed As a Therapist

Licensing requirements for therapists vary from state to state and by specialization area. Usually, you need to complete a given number of hours in supervised clinical work and undertake licensing board exams, usually a written exam. 

Once you have met these requirements, you can visit your state’s licensing website or office to apply for your license. While some states have their own licensing exams, most accept the Association of Social Work Boards Clinical Examination or Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Board Exams. To remain licensed, you are required to complete 40 hours of continuing education after every two years.

Some specializations require additional certifications to be eligible for licensing. If the certifications are optional, it is recommended to take them to increase your knowledge base and credibility in the industry.

Some common certifications for therapists include:

National Certified Counselor (NCC)

This one is provided by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). It shows that you have completed the required education level, training, and ethical requirements to become a counselor. 

To get this certification, you must have concluded your general coursework, supervised clinical hours, and professional experience. You should then take and pass the certifying exams.

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor

It is also sponsored by the NBCC. It serves as proof that as a professional, you are dedicated to specializing your practice further. To get this certification, you must first acquire the NCC.

Education and Licensing Requirements for Various Types of Therapists

How to Become a Psychotherapist

To become a psychotherapist, you need a counseling-related bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in psychotherapy. You then have to complete the required supervised clinical hours in your state and sit and pass the licensure exams. Once licensed as a psychotherapist, you will be required to obtain a certain number of education every year.

How to Become a Licensed Mental Health Therapist

Once you have completed a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related course in an accredited graduate program, fulfill the required postgraduate supervised mental health fieldwork. Take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselling Examination and then apply for the LMHC license through your state. 

How to Become a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

After earning a degree in a counseling-related course, pursue a master’s degree from an accredited program by the Council of Accreditation of Counselling and Related Educational Programs

Then, take the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE) through the Center for Credentialing and Education. This exam assesses your knowledge of counseling theories and the application of various techniques. 

The next step is to obtain a state license through the America Association of State Counselling Boards. You will be required to provide your official college transcripts, supervised clinical practice, letters of recommendation, and your current resume. 

How to Become a Behavioral Therapist

Start by earning a counseling-related degree. You can start working as an associate or intern behavioral therapist. Complete a master’s degree in this area of specialty or other relevant fields and take the relevant licensure exams.

How to Become a Cognitive and Behavioral Therapist

The process of becoming a CBT therapist is similar to that of becoming a psychotherapist. However, to become a CBT therapist, you need additional CBT techniques certification. 

The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist, NACBT offers a variety of certification courses for cognitive behavioral therapists, including:

  • Diplomate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This is the highest credential for cognitive-behavioral therapists by the NACBT. To take this exam, you must have a master’s degree or Ph.D. in a counseling-related course, over 10-years of postgraduate supervised practice, three letters of recommendation from mental health professionals, and successful completion of all NACBT cognitive behavioral therapy programs.
  • Certified Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist (CCBT). Requires a master’s degree or Ph.D. in a counseling -elated course, over 6-years of postgraduate supervised practice, three letters of recommendation from mental health professionals, and successful completion of the NACBT cognitive behavioral therapy programs.
  • Certified Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapist (CBGT). Requires you to have successfully completed the NACBT home study program and counseling-related master’s program.
  • Certified Cognitive-Behavioral Group Facilitator (CBGF). Requires you to have successfully completed the NACBT home study program and a high school diploma.

Where Can You Find Applications to Become a Licensed Therapist and Counselor?

The easiest way to find out procedures for becoming a licensed therapist or counselor is by joining the relevant professional bodies. Professional counseling and therapists’ organizations in America include:

How Much Money Do Therapists Make?

Therapist salaries vary depending on the following factors:

  • The region where a therapist works
  • Type of therapy they specialize in
  • Educational qualifications
  • Licensing and certifications
  • Experience
  • Type of organization they work in

Below is a look at how much various types of therapists make per year according to the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report:

  • Marriage and Family Therapists – $49,610  
  • Occupation therapists – $84,950
  • Recreational therapists – $48,229
  • School and career counselors – $52,040
  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counseling: $46,240

Conclusion

Getting started in a career as a therapist is rather straightforward. You require a bachelor’s degree in a counseling-related course with a major or specialization in a given area of focus. However, to advance in your career or establish yourself as an expert in a specific type of therapy, you will need to further your studies. 

A master’s degree is the most common path, but you can also take a short professional course in the specialization area. You may also need to take certification exams to become a licensed therapist. Check with your state and other professional therapist bodies to identify the requirements for certification for a therapist.

Being a therapist takes more than educational qualifications. You need to have certain qualities such as a genuine desire to help people, compassion, empathy, patience, and resilience, among others. You should also adhere to the therapist’s code of ethics.

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