You’ve made the decision to go to therapy — great! Often times, that’s the hardest step when it comes to taking care of your mental health. But if you’re wondering, “how do I figure out what kind of therapist I need?” then you’re not alone. There are many, many kinds of therapists and even more types of therapy and counseling. Sites like Good Therapy and the American Psychological Association offer great directories for researching the different types of therapy, but research is often the last thing on our minds when we’re feeling overwhelmed and in need of a listening ear.
To make choosing the right kind of therapy for you a little bit easier, we’ve broken down the essential information below. We’ll tackle the basics of therapy and mental health professionals, and then get into a little more detail on what each type of therapy is most helpful for. Finally, we’ll outline how to choose a therapist that meets your needs. Dealing with our mental health can be challenging enough, but choosing a therapist shouldn't be.
What exactly is therapy and why do some people need it?
When we talk about therapy in this context, what we’re really talking about is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is person-to-person treatment or management of mental health problems, disorders, and general mental health upkeep. Many people seek out a mental health professional for a specific mental health problem like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or addiction, but therapy can be a useful tool for anyone. There are types of therapy dedicated to relationships both familial and intimate, grief, loss, illness, break-ups, work stress, existential crises, personal development, and more.
Nearly half of U.S. adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, but many of them still don’t seek treatment because of myths surrounding therapy. Let’s break down those myths:
- Therapy is only for crazy people. This is patently untrue. Therapy is for anyone looking for outside feedback and support. In this age of tech addiction and growing levels of societal loneliness, therapy will only become a more integral part of our everyday lives.
- You need to have a mental health problem to go to therapy. Therapy can be useful during many of life’s obstacles, not just for mental health problems. A good therapist can help you navigate life changes like moving, changing jobs, becoming a parent, improving your habits, and more.
- Therapy is for the weak. It’s a misconception that therapy is about whining. Confronting your feelings and working through challenging thoughts is difficult work. Going to therapy takes courage and should be lauded as a sign of personal strength.
- All therapists say is “and how does that make you feel?” Movies and television have popularized the trope that therapists sit back with their pipes in antique armchairs, asking inane questions that go nowhere. The right therapist will create a more dynamic relationship with techniques learned through years of schooling and expertise, customizing their approach for each of their clients.
Many people need therapy to deal with mental health problems, but many others simply want an objective professional to help them navigate some of the trickier areas of life. Both are perfectly valid and excellent uses of therapists’ skillsets.
What are the different types of therapy?
Before delving into the different types of therapy, it’s useful to understand the different types of mental health professionals. Some people may be looking for a therapist with advanced training and a state-approved license, while others may find great counsel in life coaches, clergy, or others. Schooling doesn’t always mean the best therapist, but let’s break down some of the more advanced degrees.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MD or DO) who can prescribe medication to their patients, in addition to practicing psychotherapy.
Psychologists are similar to psychiatrists, but are unable to prescribe medication. In a scenario where they believe a patient would benefit from medication, psychologists typically have a working relationship with other psychiatrists and doctors to facilitate that conversation. Psychologists usually have a doctoral degree (Ph.D or Psy.D typically) and are trained in understanding how the mind and behavior correspond. You may see some psychologists listed as counseling psychologists and others as clinical psychologists — the primary difference is that a counseling psychologist helps patients to deal with more day-to-day problems, where clinical psychology may focus more on severe mental illness. That said, both are considered licensed psychologists and neither will prescribe medication.
Licensed Professional Counselor or Licensed Mental Health Counselor
An LPC or LMHC has a minimum education requirement of a Master’s in Counseling, along with a great deal of training and state certification. Counselors like these can help people develop a better relationship with their mental health, learning strategies to cope with their emotions.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
LCSWs are usually referred to as clinical social workers or just social workers. They will have a Master’s degree in social work and undergone thousands of supervised hours. It’s common to associate licensed clinical social workers with working in community related fields, but some of these social workers do maintain private practices.
These are only a handful of the types of counselors you’ll see, but it should give you a good starting point to understand the alphabet soup of advanced degrees you may see when trying to find the right person for you. All can offer helpful forms of mental health services and health care for many types of problems and mental illness.
For every type of therapist and every type of problem, there are even more types of therapy. Understanding the different types of treatment should help you in your search for the right therapist, but know that most therapists will employ a mix of these techniques for each individual patient. If any technique stands out to you as interesting, or like something you’d like to avoid, you can ask any potential therapist about their experience with that technique during your first consultation.
Common types of therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of short-term therapy focused on changing how you relate to your thoughts and how those thoughts affect your behavior. CBT is not one technique, but encompasses some of the more widely known techniques like Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and others.
- CBT might be right if: you are dealing with an anxiety disorder, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, or depression. Other behavior-based therapies can be useful for phobias, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
DBT is a comprehensive type of cognitive behavior therapy. It is based on teaching problem-solving techniques and learning acceptance strategies.
- DBT might be right if: other types of therapy haven’t worked for you. DBT is often used to treat issues such as self-harm, eating disorders, destructive thought patterns, borderline personality disorder, and more.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) has been growing in popularity for years now. It’s a type of psychotherapy designed to treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other traumas. Make sure your therapist is certified to use this technique. Done right, it can be incredibly valuable and works well with other types of therapy.
- EMDR might be right if: you’ve experienced trauma or deeply stressful events that are causing extreme anxiety.
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is another cognitive behavioral technique that employs mindfulness to help patients see and understand their negative thoughts, allowing them to gain some distance and alter how they react to those thoughts.
- MBCT might be right if: you suffer from recurrent depression, but MBCT can also be useful for many mental health issues.
Psychoanalysis has been used for years, and has been updated as many times as its been criticized. This is what most people think of when they hear the term “talk therapy.” It’s still a very common form of therapy and can be very useful for bringing unconscious problems to the surface to be dissected and resolved.
- Psychoanalysis might be right if: you have anxiety or self-esteem issues you want to explore further.
Psychodynamic therapy is rooted in psychoanalysis and is another one of the types of psychotherapy, but is a bit simpler. In this technique, your therapist will get to know your feelings, beliefs, and life experiences to help you recognize and change recurring patterns. It can be short-term (a few months) or as long as two years.
- Psychodynamic Therapy might be right if: you’re generally alright, but are struggling with your past and how it may be affecting your future. Psychodynamic therapy can be used to treat any number of issues, and may be woven into other techniques.
As stated earlier, most therapists will not limit themselves to only one of these techniques. They may combine them or alter them slightly for each patient. You’ll likely see several of these styles listed on every therapist’s website.
In addition to techniques, there are also many different types of arrangements. Here are just a few:
- Individual: This is the most common type of therapy. All therapy will be one-on-one unless otherwise stated.
- Family: Family therapy can be valuable for all familial relationships, whether between siblings, parents and children, or other family members. You may see these practitioners referred to as marriage and family therapists.
- Couples: Couples Therapy can be stigmatized as a sign that your relationship is falling apart, but it’s actually an incredible tool for developing a deeper bond or preparing for changes ahead. Many couples find value in this type of therapy when shifting responsibilities, like a change in the breadwinner or becoming parents.
- Group: Most group therapy deals with some form of substance abuse or addiction, but group therapy can also be useful for trauma, grief, and victims of physical abuse.
- Therapy for certain life events: Some therapists specialize in very specific life moments including but not limited to medical issues, childbirth, divorce, death, impotence, infertility, and others.
- Online vs in-person: It’s becoming more and more common for therapists to offer remote services via phone or video chat. If special situations prevent you from seeing a therapist in an office, this may be a great choice. At Two Chairs, we value the in-person element of therapy, and suggest building your trusting relationship with a therapist in-person whenever possible.
How do I choose the right therapist/therapy for me?
The most important question to ask yourself is what you want to get out of therapy. That answer may be as simple as, “I want to feel better,” but being able to share that with a potential therapist will help both of you determine if it’s a good fit.
Take time to think through what sort of environment you feel comfortable in and what accessibility you may have to a potential therapist. You can visit our guide on how to find a therapist if you’re not sure where to start.
Once you have a short list of therapists that you’re interested in, set up phone consultations with each. These calls will help you to investigate a few things like availability, cost, and how many therapy sessions to expect, but they should also help you determine if you feel comfortable. While you’re on the call, think about these questions:
- Do you feel like you can talk to this person?
- Do you feel like you can be honest?
- Does it feel like this person accepts you?
- Are they a good listener?
- Will they customize their approach for you?
For a good fit, therapy should be an open line of communication. In your first session, you’ll be laying the groundwork for what you want to work on. Don’t be afraid to push back if something doesn’t feel right to you, and if something really doesn’t feel right, you’re under no obligation to continue seeing someone. Therapy won’t always feel amazing, but it should always feel safe.
The next step in your well-being
Hopefully this guide provided you with the basics of therapeutic approaches, and you know enough about the types of therapy and psychotherapy to make informed decisions. Remember, therapy can be work, but it really helps, and therapists want to help you. Doing this research is the first step to a better understanding of yourself and better mental health.
If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 415.202.5159.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.