Also known as psychotherapists, mental health therapists treat patients dealing with behavioral disorders and mental health issues. Often referred to as mental health counselors, therapists hold different state licensure than counselors.
In most states, therapists must hold graduate degrees and licensure. Counselors with a bachelor’s degree can practice unlicensed, but must obtain a master’s degree to become licensed professional clinical counselors.
While some overlap exists between the two roles, therapists and counselors perform different duties. Counseling addresses specific issues, such as addiction or stress, and spans a shorter term than therapy. In general, therapists treat a broader variety of mental issues and illnesses over a longer period of time.
Mental health therapy includes specializations like couples and family therapy, grief and trauma, multicultural issues, and sex therapy. Therapists’ titles may reflect a specific type of licensure or certification, such as a licensed marriage and family therapist or registered art therapist.
What do Mental Health Therapists Do?
People seek mental health therapy for a variety of reasons. They may suffer from a disorder, such as anxiety, addiction, or schizophrenia. Others may experience situational iassues like family conflicts, major life changes, abuse, or work stress.
Mental health therapists evaluate and assess patients’ mental health, behavior, and situational issues. They ask patients to talk about their thoughts and feelings in order to formulate and recommend treatment plans.
Depending on the situation, psychotherapy may include one or more of the following approaches:
- Acceptance and commitment therapy, which teaches patients to accept their thoughts and feelings and commit to change
- Cognitive therapy, which focuses on thoughts
- Dialectical behavior therapy, which teaches coping and emotional management skills
- Humanistic therapy, which emphasizes rational choice and developing maximum potential
- Interpersonal psychotherapy, which addresses relationship problems
- Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy, which explores unconscious motivations and meanings
- Integrative or holistic therapy, which blends approaches according to patients’ needs
How to Become a Mental Health Therapist
The first step to becoming a mental health therapist consists of earning a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as psychology, social work, or counseling, from a regionally accredited school. The second step requires obtaining a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Master’s students may choose from concentration areas like addiction, rehabilitation, or trauma.
After graduation, aspiring therapists complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, including 100 hours of direct supervision, and apply for licensure from their state board. Candidates take a licensing examination, which may be state-specific or administered by a national board or organization, such as the marriage and family therapy exam, school counselor exam, or clinical social work exam.
Therapists can also take the National Certified Counselor exam, a credential separate from state licensure. Eligibility requires advanced education from a CACREP or regionally accredited program, along with specific coursework, counseling work experience, and a mental health professional’s endorsement.
Students should pursue their degree from a CACREP accredited program like Cambridge College’s M.Ed. Accreditation ensures that a program maintains high academic standards and prepares candidates for licensure, certification, and practice.
Salary and Career Outlook for Mental Health Therapists
The term “therapist” covers a broad professional area, and salaries and employment outlooks vary widely according to concentration, credentials, work settings, and geography. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides guidance, however, in its statistics for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors.
The BLS reports a 2019 median annual salary of $46,240 and projects a 25% job growth rate from 2019-29. Nearly 320,000 counselors in these occupations were employed in 2019, with the top industries listed as outpatient care centers, individual and family services, residential facilities, health practitioners’ offices, and local government.
The BLS ranks the highest paying states as Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska, and New Jersey, in which these counselors’ average annual earnings exceed $60,000. Professionals in this occupation fare even better in Lewiston (Idaho), Salt Lake City, Reno, and Mankato (Minnesota), where incomes average $71,230-$81,600 per year.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can therapists prescribe medication?
Therapists generally cannot prescribe medication. Only clinical psychologists and some school psychologists with an advanced degree can prescribe medications. Psychiatrists and psychiatric or mental health nurse practitioners can also prescribe medications, along with primary care physicians and, in some states, psychiatric pharmacists.
How long does it take to become a therapist?
Students should expect to spend 8-9 years preparing to become a licensed, practicing therapist, including four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, 2-3 years for a master’s degree, and two years gaining clinical experience. Some schools offer accelerated or online learning options that can shorten this timeline.
What is accreditation and why is it important?
Programmatic accreditation like CACREP and regional institutional accreditation indicate that a school or program has undergone regular curricular evaluations to ensure that it meets or exceeds rigorous academic standards. Accreditation can impact whether a student receives an offer of admission to graduate school, credentialing, and employment.
Do you need a doctorate to become a therapist?
While licensing and certification boards require only a master’s degree, some therapists pursue a doctorate. Those drawn to doctoral education tend to be interested in research, teaching, or high-level administration, but clinical doctorates also exist. The most common doctoral programs for mental health professionals lead to a Ph.D. or Psy.D.