Therapists Defined: Who Does Psychotherapy?

A number of different types of mental health professionals provide psychotherapy. Understanding the differences in their backgrounds and roles is often the first step in choosing a therapist.


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who, after completing medical school, receive an additional four years of specialized mental health training. Psychiatrists treat the full range of emotional and mental disorders and are licensed to prescribe medication. Psychiatrists sometimes use psychotropic medication in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat psychiatric disorders. (American Psychiatric Association)

Ph.D. Clinical Psychologists

Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy. Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology emphasize clinical theory and research methods, preparing students for both careers as psychotherapists and in adademia (as university professors and/or research scientists). Ph.D. training programs are typically housed in traditional university settings and admission is highly competitive, with many applicants for very few slots. Ph.D. Clinical Psychologists treat the full range of emotional and mental disorders.

Psy.D. Psychologists

The Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) was created in the late 1960s to address a shortage of psychotherapists. This degree emphasizes training only in therapy and counseling. Most Psy.D. programs are housed in freestanding professional schools, not affiliated with universities. Compared to Ph.D. programs, admission criteria is less stringent and graduating classes larger. Psy.D. Psychologists treat the full range of emotional and mental disorders


Counselors have a master's level degree in a field such as counseling, psychology, or substance abuse treatment, and generally must complete two years of supervised practice before obtaining a license. Like social workers, they work in private practice as well as in schools and hospitals. They often treat people dealing with problems such as alcoholism, addiction or eating disorders, usually for short periods of time. Some specialize in a certain area such as marriage, family and child counseling. (American Counseling Association)

Life Coaches

Life coaching is a popular new profession that has no specific licensing or academic requirements. Although many psychologists also consider themselves life coaches, these therapists don't focus on treating mental illness. Instead, they help healthy people realize their goals in work, family and life. Executive coaches, for example, may be enlisted to help a chief executive become a better manager. Some associations are in the process of establishing professional guidelines for life coaches. (Association of Coach Training Organizations)

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists, (L.M.F.T.s), receive master's or doctoral degrees specializing in family and interpersonal dynamics. They treat individuals in the context of family relationships, addressing issues from anger and resentment to intimacy and communication skills. Treatment with a marriage and family therapist is typically brief (20 sessions or less) and solution-focused. Since 1970, the number of practitioners has increased substantially, and the number of states licensing marriage and family therapists. (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists)

Social Workers

Social workers commonly hold a master of social work degree, or M.S.W., and have completed two years of supervised practice in order to obtain their clinical licenses. While many work in private practice, social workers often work in schools, community clinics and government agencies. (National Association of Social Workers)


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