What Type of Therapist Do You Need? Find Out with Dr. Bethany Cook’s Help

Dr. Bethany Cook is the author of For What It’s Worth- A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2. She is a parent, a licensed Clinical Psychologist,  a Health Service Psychologist, and a Board Certified Music Therapist.

She is currently working on developing and producing TV shows centered on families and mental health, in order to help others build strong familial systems and encourage viewers to live their truth. 

Dr. Cook is also a freelance writer and continues to update her blog, on parenting advice. In her spare time, Bethany enjoys making fun and engaging content on her TikTok account, @DrBCook!

During each and every stage of life, our mental health (social/emotional/psychological) and well-being is important.  If we are adults who endured childhood abuse or trauma and didn’t process that trauma somehow (either with a supportive adult or professional) it comes out later in life in ways you may not expect.  Let me say it like this: imagine trauma is like getting a deep splinter.  If not removed, over time layers of skin build on top of that tiny piece of wood. All the while you’re trying to ignore it and pretend it’s not there….but the body knows.  The body knows this wood is a forgein object and should be removed so it starts to fester toward the skin’s surface trying to get out.  As it exits it damages tissue (depending on the size and number of splinters; trauma/abuse) which could literally take out parts of vital organs needed to simply survive.  Yes, I truly believe emotional trauma can cause as much damage to one’s psyche/soul as physical abuse.  Neither is desirable, and yet physical abuse is regarded as more harmful than a parent who is emotionally neglectful and/or verbally abusive.  Just because you can’t see the damage done by words doesn’t mean those internal cuts don’t run deep; the damage to the individual is severe, just not visibility seen by the outside world.

Every cut hurts.  Most cuts heal.  Each cut impacts a person’s trajectory in life with regards to their mental health. How and when you heal matters.  Every single person walking this earth today has stories in their life that they would have preferred not to experience and those events were traumatizing.  We don’t get to judge what other people perceive as harmful to them.

That’s why it’s important to work on your past trauma if it surfaces in adulthood even if your mental health is more or less ok.  I believe the best time to go to therapy to work on stuff that “niggles” at you would be when you’re feeling good.  That being said, I believe in preventative mental health as opposed to traumatic breakdowns that inevitably come at the “worst time ever”.   

Now that we know what mental health is, let’s take a closer look at the different types of “therapists” within the field of mental health.  For many people the following three terms: therapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist are used interchangeably — but they shouldn’t be. While therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists often work together to improve a patient’s mental health, they are distinct professions. 

Below are terms used in the field of mental health and a short description about each:

Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists receive medical training (a physician, medical doctor) which lets them prescribe medications and perform medical procedures. This may involve a physical exam, lab tests, and/or a psychological evaluation.  As part of the process they’ll refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to determine what mental illness a person may have. They may use brain stimulation therapies, such as deep brain stimulation (DBS), vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), and/or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) when it comes to practicing medical procedures on patients.  You may be referred to a psychiatrist by a psychologist, social worker (or other behavioral therapist), or primary care physician if medication is needed to help achieve optimal mental health. 

Some common medications that psychiatrists prescribe include:

Psychologist:  A psychologist diagnoses and treats mental disorders, learning disabilities, provides psychological and neuropsychological testing and behavioral problems using the DSM-V.  They may provide treatment for chronic or acute problems, and they can do so in an individual, couple, family, or group setting. The most common type of treatment used by psychologists is psychotherapy, or talk therapy. A psychologist specializes in the study of behaviors and mental processes. This includes emotional and cognitive processes, how people interact with their environments, and how they interact with other people.  Psychologists help individuals learn to interpret and manage the variety of issues we each face in life which negatively impact our mental health.

Psychologist training, post-masters level, often involves learning how to administer, score and interpret psychological tests including IQ measures: projectives (Rorschach…what do you see), objective measures: personality assessment, and cognitive measures: assessing for atypical neurocognitive functioning found ADHD, Learning disability, dementias, Lewy Body Disease, etc.  

Within the field of mental health the title of “psychologist” is a protected title and can only be used by an individual who has completed the required education (which is almost always a doctorate degree), training, and state licensure requirements. 

It is not uncommon to find the title “School/Educational psychologist” after the name of someone with a Master’s degree.  Special programs offer students in this track additional training in psychological testing and these individuals can administer and interpret certain tests geared toward school achievement and ability levels.

Social Worker Social workers often have a Master’s level of education and are trained to address social injustices and barriers to their clients’ overall wellbeing. They focus both on the person and their environment which may include poverty, unemployment, discrimination and lack of housing.  They also support clients who are living with disabilities, substance abuse problems, or experience domestic conflicts to name a few.

Within the field of social work, similar to psychology, social workers can specialize in specific populations. For example, a clinical social worker works on diagnoses, treatments and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral issues, while someone else may choose to do research and development for small or large scale programs to help the community, such as Medicaid.

Marriage and Family Therapist: These individuals must obtain a Master’s degree in the area of counseling/social work/psychology plus have two years of supervised clinical experience post-graduation.  After completing these educational requirements, therapists must also pass state licensing exams. 

Creative Art Therapist: (Drama, Dance, Music, Art)- Creative arts therapists improve clients’ overall mental, emotional, and physical well-being. These professionals apply the techniques of various art forms to increase social function, improve coordination and communication, and enable expression of feelings.  Individuals may have the following qualifications: 

RDT: Registered drama therapist must have a Master’s or Doctorate Degree and have participated in internships and passed an examination.

MT-BC: A Board Certified Music Therapist: Bachelor’s or higher degree in Music Therapy. Specifically, with internships and a passed examination.

ADTA: American Dance Therapy Association: Master’s level with internships and a passed examination.

AATA: American Art Therapy Association: Master’s level, with an internship and a passed examination.

Ph.D. vs Psy.D. in Psychology: A Ph.D. is a research-based degree that requires the student to write a dissertation, takes between five to eight years to complete and the primary focus of the degrees on research.  The Psy.D. is a clinical degree that represents a practice-focused alternative.  It takes between four to six years to complete, students write a dissertation and participate at multiple practicum sites (hands on experience) while taking classes. Students must then undergo a one-year internship as part of the clinical doctoral program.

DSM-V: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by healthcare professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. DSM contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

Therapist: An individual who helps someone manage their mental health and well-being.  It could be a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or another certified “therapist.”  Before you commit to seeing anyone do your due diligence and research the person’s education and certification.

What Type of Therapist Do I Need?

This answer isn’t black and white. If you’re not feeling your best and would like to explore why, what type of therapist do you choose?

The biggest predictor of success from any type of therapy lies in what is termed the therapeutic relationship.  In simple terms this means, “How much do you trust your therapist and how positive is the relationship?”  

Your therapist could have any or all of the above degrees but if the two of you don’t get along then your treatment outcome won’t be successful.  You must trust the person you are sharing your most inner thoughts with and believe they know what they are doing and have your best interest at heart.

The second factor to the success of therapy lies in the therapist’s skills and the readiness of the client.  If you are only going to therapy to appease someone in your life the outcome won’t be as successful as it could have been if you were 100% committed.

The third factor to consider is the level of assistance needed.  If  you are struggling to maintain employment due to a disability you might look for a social worker.  Are you struggling to get out of bed everyday and having thoughts of suicide? I would strongly recommend seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist.  Do you need help with your parenting style and dealing with parenthood?  A social worker, family therapist or clinical psychologist might be your best bet.  Do you have a child that suffers from a chronic physical disability and you need a non-traditional approach to treatment that doesn’t involve talk therapy? Then I advise looking to creative arts therapists.  

Finding the right professional to help may not be as simple as phoning the first number that comes up in your Google search.  It should be well thought out, so do your research and call and interview any potential therapist.  Ask them their approach to treatment and how they take payment.  Therapy isn’t cheap but well worth any investment you make.

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