In a world in which big pharma bombards us with drug ads that offer cures for everything from anxiety to acne, it’s easy to see prescribed medication as the be-all and end-all to life’s difficulties. Just look at antidepressant Zoloft’s memorable 2001 television campaign. In the span of four commercials, an animated blob goes from weary and antisocial to healed, happy, and downright cute. If only it were that easy.
While medication brings relief to many, it doesn’t function as a one-size-fits-all for treating mental health issues and disorders. In many cases, a combination of medication and therapy—or even therapy alone—may provide better results. Take a 2014 study from The Family Institute at Northwestern University, for example, in which researchers randomly assigned treatment of either antidepressant medications alone or antidepressants combined with cognitive therapy to 452 patients with depression.
Researchers reported a 72.6 percent recovery rate for patients who received combination therapy compared to 62.5 percent recovery rate for those who only received medication. The most pronounced difference occurred within the category of patients battling severe depression, with an 81 percent recovery rate for those receiving combination therapy versus a 51 percent rate for those taking medication alone. (This result held, even after data in the study was challenged and corrected.)
These findings aren’t to say that therapy is strictly for people who struggle with mental illness. There are countless treatment styles and settings, which means there’s likely a form of therapy that can help anyone. Therapists help us better understand how our minds work. They teach us to navigate our emotions, build better behaviors, and express our thoughts in healthier ways. They give us the life-changing skills to develop mental resilience so that we can eventually leave therapy and manage on our own. Essentially, they allow us to make an incredibly valuable investment in our self-care.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re already aware of all of the above—and not looking to prove the effectiveness of therapy, but validate your plans for a career in psychotherapy. Whether you’re amazed by the brain’s ability to change, passionate about self-discovery, or want to help people become healthier, stronger, and more empowered, here are some signs to confirm you’re meant to be a therapist.
Above all else, a therapist—whether a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist—must be able to pay attention to what patients are telling them. As basic as it sounds, they do this to find patterns in how their minds work and, ultimately, figure out how they can help them. As the bedrock of therapy, listening encourages patients to open up and develop a sense of trust with their therapists. Once they feel heard and understood, healing begins.
Maybe you’ve been deemed “the therapist” in your family or social group, a go-to for anyone hoping to unload their secrets or seek out your advice. It’s common for people to comment on your ability to remember what they said in previous conversations and later ask about them in ways that show your interest in their thoughts and emotions. When listening, you tend to motivate others to elaborate on their stories instead of responding with your own. It’s somewhat natural for you to avoid moralizing or passing judgment because, after all, you know we’re all vulnerable in some way.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Empathy goes well past, “and how does that make you feel?” By understanding and sharing patients’ feelings, therapists are not only able to forge genuine relationships with those they help, but also collaborate with them on what can be done to relieve their suffering. It’s a practice that allows therapists to take on perspectives in a way that brings patients into focus as living, breathing individuals instead of blurring them into a stereotyped group or demographic. It builds a rapport that is supportive and attuned to patients’ experiences and well-being instead of one that works with a coolly detached understanding.
As an empath, you enjoy helping people, maybe even enough to categorize yourself as a “do-gooder.” Whether you’re making a donation, volunteering your time, or bringing takeout to a friend, making use of your big heart tends to recharge you and boost your self-esteem. You don’t dislike meeting many new people at once, but you tend to look for opportunities that allow you to interact with people one-on-one and develop strong personal connections.
There comes a time when we all feel like we desperately need to talk about something. Many people crave the opportunity to confide in someone who is not part of their lives and can guarantee complete and total privacy. Here’s where therapy is a huge benefit, allowing people to say, feel, and explore things in private therapy sessions that they might not otherwise be able discuss with a friend of loved one. From psychology to psychiatry to social work, various codes of ethics across therapy-related fields stipulate that anything said between professionals and their patients’ stays between them, completely confidential, unless mandated by law.
When you have a piece of information that others don’t know about, it takes a certain amount of mental effort to keep it secret. The most painful secrets to keep don’t usually involve good news. They tend to contain negative information that, if disclosed, would cause other people to see the world or certain people in it differently—probably with a certain degree of shock. Despite this, you’re someone who people continuously seek out to share private and confidential information, with some exceptions. Of course, you would never take confidentiality so far as to let someone who is raising all sorts of red flags endanger themselves or others.
People change therapists and even leave therapy altogether for a host of reasons. Some find their therapist isn’t the right fit. Others may realize they “outgrew” treatment. There’s all that talk of the past, of the present, about fears for the future. It’s hard, and it’s tiring, and in many cases, it becomes a situation in which patients are no longer invested in their self-improvement. Good therapists of all types know not to take this personally when it happens, mainly because the only material they have to work with is what their patients present.
In most cases, you know that it’s far more beneficial and healthy to let go of other peoples’ criticisms of your beliefs and behaviors. You take constructive criticism seriously, but not personally. Likewise, you know when the actions of someone who rejects you, ignores you, or doesn’t show they care has more to do with their experiences and personal issues than you as a person. When you do miss the mark, you acknowledge it, apologize, and move on.
Many people who seek out a psychotherapist want a caring professional to help them develop the self-esteem that will carry toward greater emotional awareness, balance, and even joy. At the same time, they also need someone to help them confront fairly unpleasant aspects of their lives. It’s an environment that prompts many therapists to challenge their patients as much as they champion them. Honesty is the best policy—and they know it, holding patients accountable for their words, actions, and promises as they relate to their treatment. Still, they know some truths are harder to deal with, which is why they have a talent for bursting bubbles without hurting feelings.
When someone you love engages in unsafe habits or practices, you know that it’s often necessary to remove certain conveniences for them to change. You maintain your support, but limit your assistance, all to help them to learn the consequences of their behavior—and use the challenge as an opportunity for self-growth.
When people hear the term “therapist,” many imagine a person sitting in an office scribbling notes while a patient lies on a couch talking to them. Sure, there are plenty of psychologists who engage in this type of therapy in private practice. Still, people who work in the field do a variety of other things—many of which relate to how people treat others, their environment, and themselves.
Maybe you’re fascinated by humankind’s capacity for evil or the tendency of people in power to act with a sense of entitlement and disrespect. Or maybe, you often wake up in the morning questioning the significance of the previous night’s dream—or why we dream in general. From studies asking kids to wait to eat marshmallows to the startling statistics on false memories, you see human behavior as a riddle that offers as many answers as it does questions.
As mental health professionals, therapists must complete a significant amount of education and training to receive a license to practice. At a minimum, most therapists hold a master’s degree in counseling or mental health. Many related programs usually require students to gain practical experience by completing internship programs and clinical practicums under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional in their field. Their time in school equips them with the skills and knowledge needed to assess patients, listen to their issues, and apply appropriate treatment methods to a variety of emotional and mental needs.
While more extensive, a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology is one of the most common options for those interested in mental health therapy careers. An alternative to the PhD is the PsyD, a doctoral degree with a greater focus on professional practice than the more research-focused PhD. Students pursuing either path often begin by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology before moving directly into a doctoral training program. Others opt to complete a master’s degree before pursuing their PhD or PsyD.
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