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How to Become a Therapist: 5 Routes to a Fulfilling Career

The mental health field is growing rapidly, as over 28 million people in the U.S. have an untreated mental illness. As a result, there’s a high demand for therapists.  With various education programs, training options, specializations, and settings, aspiring mental health professionals have options.  The first step is to decide what type of therapist you […]

isbell oliva garcia grow therapy By Isbell Oliva-Garcia

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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The mental health field is growing rapidly, as over 28 million people in the U.S. have an untreated mental illness. As a result, there’s a high demand for therapists. 

With various education programs, training options, specializations, and settings, aspiring mental health professionals have options. 

The first step is to decide what type of therapist you want to be. Once you have decided which career path is right for you, you can research your state’s educational programs and licensure requirements. 

Being a therapist is a profession that offers many rewards. Once you decide this field is right for you, there are many ways to get started. Keep reading for an overview of how to become a therapist and the different routes you can take to pursue this meaningful career path.

The Role of a Therapist

In 2021, around 41.7 million adults in the U.S. received treatment or counseling for their mental health within the past year, highlighting the growing demand for mental health services. This is why the work that therapists do is so important.

What Does a Therapist Do?

Therapists are professionals who help people improve their mental health and well-being. They do this by providing a safe and confidential space for people to talk about their problems, providing support and guidance, and teaching coping skills. Therapists also:

What Areas Do Therapists Work In?

Some of the most common areas that therapists work in include:

These are just a few of the areas that a therapist can choose to work in. The key is to find the area that interests you the most and that fits your personality.

Where Do Therapists Work?

Therapists have the flexibility to work in various environments, such as:

With so many options available, you’ll be sure to find the setting that best suits your interests.

How Does a Therapist Get Licensed?

Educational requirements for each path to becoming a licensed therapist will vary; however, there are certain general steps that you must follow:

How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?

The journey to becoming a therapist can vary in length and educational level, depending on the desired license. Master’s degree programs typically take two to three years, while doctoral programs can span four to six years. This investment equips therapists with the skills needed to impact their patients’ well-being profoundly.

What Skills Does a Therapist Need?

Becoming a proficient therapist requires a blend of essential skills:

Career Pathways and Opportunities

A therapist can take many different paths, such as becoming a mental health counselor, clinical social worker, or clinical psychologist. It’s important to research what path will be best for you and your career goals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that there will be a 22% job growth rate from 2021 to 2031 for mental health counselors, so this is a great time to consider a therapy career.

1. Mental Health Counselor

To become a mental health counselor, most counselors obtain a master’s degree in counseling or a related field. This advanced education equips you with knowledge about human development, psychotherapy techniques, group dynamics, and ethical principles. This academic background serves as a solid foundation for many types of practices.

Practical experience is equally important. Aspiring counselors take part in supervised clinical training, applying theoretical learning to real-world situations. Working under experienced mentors, trainees refine their communication skills, build therapeutic relationships, and develop effective intervention strategies.

State licensure is a key step to becoming a practicing mental health counselor. Requirements differ by state but often include supervised clinical hours, a licensure exam, and adherence to ethical guidelines.

2. Clinical Social Worker

Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) starts with obtaining a master’s degree in social work. This comprehensive education equips you with knowledge of social welfare, human behavior, policy, and intervention strategies. Coursework involves areas like counseling techniques, cultural competence, and ethics, preparing future LCSWs for the diverse needs they will address.

Practical experience can take the form of supervised clinical hours gaining hands-on training in various settings. Through direct client interactions, you’ll refine assessment skills, develop intervention plans, and learn to navigate complex social dynamics.

After completing education and clinical hours, you can apply for state licensure as an LCSW. This requires passing an exam and meeting ethical guidelines. Licensure allows you to practice independently and provide therapeutic services.

3. Clinical Psychologist

The path to becoming a clinical psychologist typically requires a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Both programs offer research, assessment, and intervention coursework, but Ph.D. programs emphasize research, while Psy.D. programs emphasize clinical training. Clinical psychologists also complete supervised internships to gain hands-on experience.

Ultimately, your best choice will depend on your goals and interests. If you are interested in research and academia, then a Ph.D. is the better option. A Psy.D. is the better option if you are interested in clinical practice.

4. Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner starts with obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, followed by a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. This advanced education equips you with an in-depth understanding of medical principles, mental health disorders, and therapeutic interventions.

Practical training is an integral part of the process. Aspiring psychiatric nurse practitioners participate in supervised clinical rotations, applying classroom knowledge in real-world scenarios. These experiences will enable you to assess mental health conditions, develop treatment plans, and provide vital patient care.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners have a broad scope of practice, enabling them to address a range of mental health concerns. They can diagnose mental health disorders, offer psychotherapy, and prescribe medication to manage symptoms. This comprehensive approach allows them to provide holistic care tailored to individual needs.

What sets psychiatric nurse practitioners apart is their holistic perspective. They address mental health issues and consider overall well-being, physical health, social factors, and emotional needs.

5. Psychiatrist

Becoming a psychiatrist involves a comprehensive journey of education, training, and specialization journey. These professionals play a pivotal role in addressing mental health disorders through a unique blend of medical and therapeutic approaches.

The path to becoming a psychiatrist starts with obtaining a medical degree (M.D. or D.O.) after completing an undergraduate education. Medical school covers foundational medical knowledge, anatomy, pharmacology, and clinical skills. Next, psychiatrists undergo specialized psychiatric training during their residency.

What sets psychiatrists apart is their dual expertise in medicine and psychology. They have a deep understanding of the brain’s complexities and the interplay of biochemical factors in mental health disorders. This knowledge informs their ability to diagnose and treat conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

One distinctive aspect of psychiatry is integrating medication and therapeutic techniques. Psychiatrists have the authority to prescribe medication to address chemical imbalances in the brain. Additionally, they use psychotherapy to help people develop coping skills, gain insights, and deal with emotional challenges.

Gaining Clinical Experience

Getting hands-on clinical experience is an important phase for aspiring therapists during and after their education. This practical engagement fosters skill development, enhances understanding, and prepares them to be effective professionals in the field of therapy. BLS reports that 16,920 therapists were practicing in the U.S. in 2022, with a mean average wage of $71,860.

Why Clinical Experience Matters

Practical experience bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world application. It allows budding therapists to interact with different types of patients, understand unique challenges, and tailor interventions accordingly. This experience cultivates confidence, adaptability, and a deep appreciation for the nuances of human emotions.

Where to Get Clinical Experience

Aspiring therapists can gain clinical experience through various ways, such as internships and supervised counseling sessions. Internships provide structured environments where students work with clients under the guidance of experienced supervisors. Supervised counseling sessions offer direct client interaction, while mentors offer guidance and feedback.

Start Your Journey

Becoming a therapist is a challenging but rewarding career. The first step is to research your state’s educational programs and licensure requirements. Once you understand the requirements well, you can start taking the necessary steps to become a therapist.

After you are licensed, you can start your own private practice or work for a mental health clinic or hospital. Grow Therapy can help you build an in-network private practice with all the tools you need, including credentialing, guaranteed billing, marketing, and a peer community. 

FAQs

  • Research educational programs and licensure requirements in your state to begin your path as a therapist. Once you clearly understand the steps needed, you can pursue the necessary education and training to enter this rewarding profession.

  • If you are considering becoming a therapist, there are a few things you can do to decide if it is the right career for you. Here are a few tips: - Talk to therapists about their experiences and what they like and dislike about the job. - Shadow a therapist for a day or two to get a firsthand experience of the job. - Take some psychology classes

  • The time it takes to become a therapist varies depending on the program you choose. The most common pathway to becoming a therapist is to get a master's degree in counseling or psychology. This can take two to three years to complete. You will then need to complete a supervised clinical internship, which can take one to two years.

About the author
isbell oliva garcia grow therapy Isbell Oliva-Garcia

Isbell Oliva-Garcia is a licensed mental health counselor, bilingual in English and Spanish. Isbell specializes in treating individuals with depression, anxiety, and issues during difficult life transitions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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