What Kind of Therapist Do You Need?

By Jenni Jacobsen, LSW on July 27, 2021

When you realize that a therapist could be beneficial to you, it’s a big step. Working with a therapist can change the trajectory of your life. It’s overwhelming to know where to start, though. There are so many types of therapists and areas of specialty that it’s intimidating when it’s not something you’re familiar with.

What Is Therapy?

Therapy is a broad umbrella term. Also referred to as counseling or psychotherapy, the goal of participating in any therapy is to help you be happier, healthier, and more productive in your daily life. Therapists rely on research and evidence-based strategies to help their patients and clients learn more effective habits. There are different approaches to therapy, but the general objective is resolving problematic behaviors, feelings, and beliefs. 

Some therapists are more clinical in nature, meaning they diagnose and treat mental health disorders, whereas others take a more broad approach and help people to develop coping skills and strategies for managing common life problems, such as stress or relationship difficulties. In simple terms, therapy involves working with a trained professional and talking through problems to find solutions and improve your mental, emotional and behavioral health. 

Why Do You Want to Go to Therapy?

Since there are different therapeutic approaches and types of providers, your starting point as far as answering “what kind of therapist do I need?” should be what your goals are. Ask yourself what you hope to work on and achieve through therapy. Some of the reasons that people seek therapy include:

  • Substance use: it’s common for substance abuse and addiction to be a coping mechanism for unresolved co-occurring mental health disorders. Therapists can help address the problematic behavior itself and the underlying cause.
  • Stress and anxiety: working with a therapist can help you identify what’s creating stress in your life, and then from there, you can begin to develop coping strategies.
  • Support: therapists can be like a coach for some people to help them become the best version of themselves. Working with a therapist can help promote self-esteem and confidence.
  • Depression: Depression is a mood disorder and one of the most common mental health issues in the U.S. Talk therapy is a way to learn more about the cause of your depression, and you can start to develop strategies to manage symptoms.
  • Grief and loss: grief is hard to deal with on your own, but therapy can help you find closure along the way.

Some other reasons to see a therapist include relationship issues, trauma or PTSD, problems sleeping, and phobias. Therapy can also be helpful if you’re in a transitional period of your life or you want to make major changes, but you’re having a hard time figuring out how to move forward.

Different Types of Therapists

Once you’ve identified your goals of therapy in general, you can start to think about the type of practitioner who might be able to help you achieve those most effectively.

Psychologist

Psychologists are mental health professionals trained in conducting evaluations and using talk therapy to help people improve their lives and reduce symptoms of mental health conditions. Psychologists must obtain a doctoral degree.

  • Psychologists have clinical skills and professional training for in-depth testing for mental health conditions to make a diagnosis. 
  • A clinical psychologist is a professional focusing mostly on the study of mental health conditions. 
  • Counseling psychologists will help clients directly address their emotional, physical, and social needs.
  • A psychologist will use evidence-based treatment approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, or psychodynamic therapy.
  • Therapy can be done one-on-one, with couples or with families.

Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists have a medical degree, so they can diagnose medical conditions and, if needed, prescribe medication. 

  • Psychiatrists can diagnose and treat many mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, OCD, schizophrenia and eating disorders. 
  • A psychiatrist might use talk therapy and medication when treating a patient. 
  • Some psychiatrists don’t do talk therapy and will only manage prescriptions. In that case, you might work with a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

Counselor

A counselor is similar to a psychologist, but counselors complete a master’s degree to become licensed. Counselors are not always clinically focused and can treat a broad range of problems, including relationship conflict and poor stress management. 

  • Counselors often specialize in a particular population, like students, emphasizing prevention. 
  • For example, counselors can help people learn strategies to avoid mental health challenges proactively, before they become a problem. 
  • A counselor can also help people with specific concerns, like marital issues, substance abuse, or stress management.

Social Worker

Social workers are broadly trained to treat mental and emotional health problems, as well as other problems of living, including poverty, domestic violence, child abuse and addiction. 

  • Social workers may specialize in working with children, teens, adults or families. 
  • When you work with a social worker, they might help you as you’re dealing with a specific challenging situation. 
  • After going to rehab for an addiction, a social worker can help connect people with resources in their local community to remain sober in their recovery. 
  • Social workers can also help advocate for clients.
  • Other therapists usually focus more on psychological approaches than a social worker. A social worker focuses more on helping clients improve their overall life circumstances.

Compared to counselors and psychologists, social workers have a broader area of focus. Some may focus on clinical mental health, whereas others help clients cope with a variety of life challenges.

Most Common Types of Therapy

Once someone recognizes their need to work with a therapist and understands the types, there’s still more research to do. Therapists can specialize in different therapeutic approaches.

Psychodynamic Therapy

The core focus of psychodynamic therapy is self-examination. The relationship between a therapist and patient is like a window into the problematic and negative patterns in the patient’s life. 

Psychodynamic therapy is useful for:

  • Depression
  • Panic disorders
  • Stress-related disorders
  • Depression

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is a broad term that covers many types of therapy. The goal of all behavioral therapies is to identify and then change destructive or unhealthy behaviors. The underlying concept is that all behaviors are learned and can be changed. It primarily focuses on changing current problems, so it’s often short-term. 

Behavioral therapy can help with: 

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and panic disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • PTSD
  • Eating disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • ADHD
  • Self-harm 

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a form of psychotherapy combining cognitive therapy, meditation and mindfulness. The approach assumes that thoughts come before moods, and false self-beliefs lead to negative emotions and contribute to conditions like depression. 

With MBCT, you learn to be conscious of your thoughts and feelings without judging them. You can also learn specific mindfulness techniques such as body scanning and meditation. With MBCT, you can work with a therapist to recognize your negative thinking, replacing those thoughts with ones that are more positive and reflective of reality.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a subtype of behavioral therapy and effective for many problems, including depression, alcohol, drug use, eating disorders, and severe mental illness. Research and scientific evidence show CBT helps improve quality of life and functionality. 

When working with a therapist, you learn that psychological problems are often due to unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving. You can learn how to cope with your problems more effectively, starting by changing your thought patterns.

Humanistic Therapy

The mental health approach of humanistic therapy focuses on learning how to be your authentic self for a fulfilling life. You have a way of viewing the world that’s unique to you, impacting your actions. You can learn how to better understand your view of the world through humanistic therapy and cultivate self-acceptance.

Types of Therapy Arrangements

There are different arrangements or formats in which therapy might occur. These include:

  • Individual therapy: you work with a professional one-on-one through the process, regardless of the therapeutic approach.
  • Group therapy: a therapist guides a group of people who all are being treated at the same time and often have similar symptoms and conditions. The benefit of group therapy is that it’s a built-in support mechanism, and you realize you aren’t alone. Group therapy can be especially beneficial for conditions like social anxiety.
  • Family therapy: you can participate in counseling with other members of your family to improve communication and resolve conflicts. A psychologist, licensed therapist, or clinical social worker will often lead family therapy sessions. Family therapy is usually short-term, and the treatment plan depends on the family’s situation.
  • Couples therapy: working with a therapist or counselor can help couples improve their relationship. This approach can deal with many issues, including affairs, sex-related issues, or problems stemming from external stress. Like family therapy, couples therapy is usually short-term.

Choosing the Right Therapist for You

It’s overwhelming to choose a therapist. To get the most out of your sessions, you need to work with someone you feel comfortable with. You have to feel like you can be honest with them and that your personalities align well. Specific things to consider as you’re choosing a therapist include:

  • Ask for referrals from someone you trust. 
  • Consider your goals and the type of therapy you might be most interested in and use this to narrow down providers.
  • If you have a specific concern, such as an eating or anxiety disorder, connect with local or national organizations to see if they can provide recommendations.
  • You might prefer a therapist who is culturally competent. This means you might want someone from a similar background as your own. You might also want someone who’s a particular gender.
  • If you aren’t sure about your goals, try to write them down before you begin talking to therapists. This will help you articulate your needs and goals and be better prepared to narrow down providers.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions before you start working with a therapist, whether you do so by email, phone or in person.
  • There can be some trial and error in finding the right person. Don’t worry if the first few therapists you meet with aren’t right for you. Keep trying until you find one who is.

Increasingly, technology-driven options are available to break down barriers to mental health care. You can explore these resources too. For example, you can download the free Nobu app created by The Recovery Village, a leading national mental health services provider. Through the app, you can start to identify and track your mental health goals. For an additional fee,  connect with mental health providers for online therapy sessions. 

melissa carmona

Edited by – Melissa Carmona

As the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems, Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Melissa is a Florida State University graduate… Read more.

jenni jacobsen

Written by – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW

Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has seven years of experience working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health… Read more.

dr angela phillips

Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.