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How to Become a Therapist

Therapists are some of the best listeners in the world. However, the job of a therapist doesn’t stop at listening. The career path starts with the desire to help others and ends with a doctoral degree and a license to practice. A clinical mental health counseling background and thousands of clinical hours make up the road to becoming a medical professional. If you're wondering how to become a therapist, this article will get you started.

Here, we cover the steps to becoming a licensed therapist. We'll discuss educational requirements and licensure, the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, and the occupations earning potential.

What Does a Therapist Do?

Therapists are mental health professionals that treat patients with a wide range of mental health conditions. These professionals work with patients to improve their symptoms using coping mechanisms and a variety of treatments. Therapists help individuals overcome their problems one on one or in group sessions. 

Therapists with a medical degree, or psychiatrists, can prescribe medication. Therapists who don’t have this degree cannot prescribe medicine and will use counseling and other treatment types to help patients. A therapist’s job includes accessing patients and creating treatment plans, working with clients to develop skills for success, and taking notes and recording sessions.

Therapists work with individuals with a variety of problems, including anger management, eating disorders, anxiety and depression, stress, drug and alcohol problems, and trauma. There are many types of therapists, specializing in marriage and family matters, recreation, behavioral analysis, substance abuse, and children, to name a few.

What's the Difference between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

The term therapist refers to many mental health professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists. A psychologist is someone who has a degree in psychology, most commonly a PhD, and works with a client through talk therapy and analysis. Psychologists work with doctors and other medical professionals to develop a treatment plan. A psychiatrist has a medical degree and uses psychological testing and medical analysis to prescribe their patients with medication. Psychiatrists go on to research mental health conditions to aid progress in the scientific field.

Types of Therapists

Clinical psychology is the largest employment area in the industry, but there are many other options available. While there are different types of therapists than the ones listed below, here are a few. Other than these, additional degree paths can include becoming a marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor, licensed school psychologist, and advanced psychiatric nurse.

Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Clinical mental health counseling is the traditional route for students interested in becoming a licensed therapist. Those who choose this path must complete a BS in psychology and earn their master's in clinical mental health counseling or a related field. They can choose to specialize in geriatrics or substance abuse, to name a few. They can choose to become psychiatrists from this route. 

Licensed Social Worker

Therapist careers also include social work, but they may be more commonly referred to as counselors. These professionals typically hold a BS in a related field and a master’s degree in social work. They often choose to specialize in a certain area, like behavioral analysis.

Licensed Counselor 

A licensed counselor works in a variety of different areas in mental health. A BS and master’s degree in counseling are typically required for this position. Coursework for the programs include counseling theories, cultural and social issues, and methods of analysis. There are several excellent online counseling degrees available, if you can't commit to an on-campus program. 

Creative Arts Therapists

Creative arts therapists use the arts to treat mental illnesses and psychological disorders. There are different art therapists and specializations, including art, dance, music, and drama therapy. Each specialization also comes with its own set of training and requirements. That said, you'll likely need to obtain a BS in psychology or a related field. 

How to Become a Therapist

No matter what kind of therapist you want to become, there are several steps required to get started in this profession.

1. Earn a Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree

Those who wish to become a therapist must earn a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS) degree. In this stage, consider and decide on a specialization for you. This specialization helps determine a career path. There is a variety of specializations to choose from, including behavioral, family, cognitive, applied behavior analysis, and rehabilitation. This helps decide electives and other undergraduate coursework as well as knowing if earning a master’s degree is necessary for you. Minoring in counseling, psychology, or sociology also helps develop the foundation for becoming a licensed therapist while pursuing your BS. 

2. Apply for Higher Education Degree Programs

In many cases, attending a university for a master’s degree after a BS program is necessary. Many states require education beyond your BS to become a licensed therapist. Individual states may also require specific coursework and prerequisites for their educational requirements. 

Social work, family, rehabilitation, and psychological therapy are just a few options for a master’s degree. Reviewing a specific state’s licensure requirements is necessary prior to enrolling in a master’s program. Additionally, many professionals go on to earn their doctorate as individual states may require this.

3. Training and Clinical Work 

Several thousand supervised clinical hours are required to become a licensed therapist. Undergraduate and graduate programs may include clinical work and training as part of their curriculum. These allow students to apply what they have learned in a real-world setting and network with accomplished mental health professionals. Students interested in gaining even more experience can apply for observation opportunities and internships.

4. Apply for Licensure

Each state’s licensure requirements will vary. That said, applicants typically have to pay a licensing fee, complete state-mandated coursework and clinical hours, and pass a licensing test. The exam is a written test that covers psychological theories of therapy and mental health treatment. To maintain a therapist license, 40 hours of continuing education is required every two years.

5. Network

Networking is a powerful tool in the industry. There are benefits to knowing others at multiple levels. For example, those who choose to go into private practice will need referrals, and those can be found in other professionals. Additionally, recommendations might need to be made to psychiatrists or other doctors in the medical field. This is where networking in the community is helpful. Moreover, those who wish to work for an organization can get job referrals this way as well.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Therapist?

Prospective therapists need to complete a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree to become licensed professionals. An undergraduate degree takes anywhere from four to five years, followed by an additional four to seven years in graduate school. Students then go on to earn a doctorate. In this field, students typically spend as many as 12 years in higher education. Overall, the road to becoming a therapist involves a great deal of knowledge and education. Here are some additional steps you need to take.

Important Therapist Skills

Therapists require hard and soft skills to succeed. Naturally, being a good listener and a good communicator is necessary; however, so are analytical skills. Additionally, therapists must be good record keepers to take detailed records of each one of their patients. Critical thinking and scientific skills are also crucial as a therapist. These skills allow therapists to consider all possibilities for treatment, stay up to date on the latest trends, and understand different diagnoses.

Empathy is another critical skill for all therapists. Professionals must understand and emphasize with a variety of different people even if therapists don’t agree with their patients.

Another skill therapists must have is boundary setting. Maintaining healthy boundaries with patients is one of the most essential skills while practicing. Most importantly, it is ethical to have these boundaries set in place. 

Some business skills are relevant for those who go into private practice. Tracking client records, finances, taxes, and managing the advertising side of the company are skills needed for a therapist to run a successful business. Attending a webinar for a business training course is beneficial to those who don’t have a background in company operation. However, those who don’t wish to pursue the business-side can hire an office manager.

Therapists that work online need to have decent technical skills to use video software. They will also need to use other software in their business, such as software that can allow patients to book their appointments online.

Therapist Salary and Career Outlook

Researching the exact amount that a therapist makes depends on the specialization, location, and years of practice. Here are just a few of those amounts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Psychologists make a median annual salary of $80,370 a year, while psychiatrists bring in $216,090 annually. Additionally, mental health counselors earn $46,040 a year. Professionals in Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Clinical Mental Health Counseling bring in $46,240 per year. Rehabilitation counselors make a median $35,950 yearly.

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