What is a Mental Health Therapist?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Someone dealing with depression might seek a mental health therapist's assistance.
Someone dealing with depression might seek a mental health therapist's assistance.

Ask any two mental health therapists to define their profession, and different answers might emerge. Also sometimes called a mental health counselor, therapist or psychotherapist, the definition of what these professionals can be varied and based on many different types of factors. In broad terms the mental health therapist is a trained professional who could offer a wide range of therapeutic support to individuals or groups and to couples or families. Focus is typically on the person’s or group’s identified problems, and ways in which discussion or thinking about these problems could promote change.

A mental health therapist will listen and talk to people who are having a variety of problems.
A mental health therapist will listen and talk to people who are having a variety of problems.

Virtually anyone called a mental health therapist has at least a master’s degree and associated licenses. People can become a marriage family therapist (MFT), a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), or a licensed professional counselor (LPC). Some psychologists also specialize in therapy, though their degree may not designate this. Yet a psychologist with a Psy.D degree may have more specifically focused on mental health issues and counseling while in school.

A mental health therapist can give people tips on how to de-stress.
A mental health therapist can give people tips on how to de-stress.

There are several things that a mental health therapist may do. They tend to listen and talk to people who are having a variety of problems. These problems could be mental illnesses, in which case the therapist might also work with a psychiatrist who prescribes medication for a patient. A lot of other basic problems might be the focus of therapy, including dealing with trauma, having a hard time controlling emotions, trying to make important decisions, feeling sad or angry all of the time, and many others. Often in individual sessions, the therapist and the client would discuss issues that are currently challenging, and through this discussion and/or other techniques employed, might find ways of solving problems.

Therapists often suggest activities that can improve a person's mental well being.
Therapists often suggest activities that can improve a person's mental well being.

As mentioned, mental health therapy isn’t necessarily individual therapy. Therapists might run groups that are specific to certain issues, inviting clients or others to join. Couples or family therapy can be mental health therapy too. All these types are directed toward helping to resolve mental problems.

While this description sounds simplistic, it isn’t meant to be. Solving problems can be difficult work, and as a client talks, the mental health therapist is engaged in active listening. He or she might spot recurrent issues prior to the client. Depending on what kind of therapy is being practiced, the therapist might then bring these issues to the client’s attention.

A couples therapist may be considered a mental health therapist.
A couples therapist may be considered a mental health therapist.

This is the part where things get exceptionally complicated. There are many different schools of thought that can underlie how a mental health therapist performs his job. Some of these, like psychoanalysis, suggests the therapist say very little, and allow the issues and problems to always come from the client. Other forms of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, are more teaching directed, and a client may even take home homework each week. What can be vast differences in approach may very much underscore the difficulty in defining what a mental health therapist does. To confuse matters, many therapists endorse an eclectic approach, which may draw on lots of different schools of thought as appears appropriate to each individual client.

Mental health therapists are often well-trained in diffusing tense emotions and resolving conflict.
Mental health therapists are often well-trained in diffusing tense emotions and resolving conflict.

In the end, it can be said that the mental health therapist works with clients in a variety of configurations to work on problems of anything from a puzzling to deeply serious nature. The way this work unfolds depends on the training and preferences of the therapist. Similarly, some therapists choose to work with specific groups, and might not work with children, couples, or might avoid working with adults. This work often takes place in an office environment, but things like group work might occur in conference rooms, and occasionally therapists travel to their client’s locations, instead of having patients meet with them.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Ana1234

@Fa5t3r - Well, psychotherapists are usually well paid and well thought of, but I guess that's because they are doctors and are well trained as well.

I think most counselors don't tend to get all that much training. I've heard of them being sent out on the job with only a year or less of school, and expected to learn on the job. Considering the people they are expected to help, I don't think that's nearly enough.

Fa5t3r

@Iluviaporos - My sister has plans to one day get into mental health services and I think she's been inspired by the fact that she's had to work with them herself a fair amount. Drug addiction counselors also almost always seem to have had real world experience (if not as addicts themselves, then with people close to them being addicts).

I actually think that it's partly because there isn't much mention in society of these issues and the only way people get exposed to the work of mental health therapists is when they come into contact with them professionally.

It's such a difficult and important job and I wish it was more widely respected and considered in society.

lluviaporos

I've been to a few mental health counselors over the years and one thing I've noticed is that many of them seem to have had their own mental health issues. I'm not saying that as a way to put them down, but rather as a way of recommendation.

My last counselor mentioned something about how she coped with her own anxiety and when I asked her about it, she seemed to get nervous as though I was going to be annoyed that she was treating me when she had her own troubles. But if anything I think it's important for her to truly know where her patients are coming from and how coping strategies work in the real world.

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    • Someone dealing with depression might seek a mental health therapist's assistance.
      Someone dealing with depression might seek a mental health therapist's assistance.
    • A mental health therapist will listen and talk to people who are having a variety of problems.
      A mental health therapist will listen and talk to people who are having a variety of problems.
    • A mental health therapist can give people tips on how to de-stress.
      A mental health therapist can give people tips on how to de-stress.
    • Therapists often suggest activities that can improve a person's mental well being.
      Therapists often suggest activities that can improve a person's mental well being.
    • A couples therapist may be considered a mental health therapist.
      A couples therapist may be considered a mental health therapist.
    • Mental health therapists are often well-trained in diffusing tense emotions and resolving conflict.
      Mental health therapists are often well-trained in diffusing tense emotions and resolving conflict.
    • Therapists might recommend activities like getting a massage to help a person de-stress.
      Therapists might recommend activities like getting a massage to help a person de-stress.
    • A mental health therapist may help facilitate group therapy.
      A mental health therapist may help facilitate group therapy.
    • Mental health therapists may choose to focus their work on disadvantaged children.
      Mental health therapists may choose to focus their work on disadvantaged children.