How Long Does it Take to Become a Therapist?

Becoming a licensed therapist requires a bachelor's and a master's degree.

Professional therapists are highly respected mental health professionals who practice their profession around the world. They gain certification and legal credentials to practice their mental health care craft through a variety of academic channels. Some begin their training in the field of psychology. Others shift to the therapy profession from other educational backgrounds. Regardless, all therapists have taken on the task of becoming licensed mental professionals which is no easy feat. The educational path requires a great deal of hard work and commitment. Everyone who enters the field of professional counseling and therapy begins with the same question:

How long does it take to become a therapist?

What Is a Therapist?

The word therapist is used as an umbrella term to define mental health care professionals who provide counseling services in a variety of settings with distinct goals. Sample outcomes include:

  • PTSD recovery
  • marriage and family therapists
  • substance abuse
  • social coaching
  • occupational support

Therapists may work in:

  • addiction recovery
  • school counseling
  • marriage
  • family therapy,
  • helping with specific mental health conditions

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the following specialty job titles for therapists:

  • health educator
  • probation officer
  • social worker

Anyone of these counselors may provide therapy in individual, couple, family, or group settings.

Therapists may be defined by the therapeutic tools they use to help their clients. Play therapists use interactive play as a medium to reach the children they work with. Music therapists use active music exercises and exploration to achieve measurable client goals. Art therapists use artistic expression to help their clients to vent their thoughts and feelings. Therapists are also defined by the clinical style or school of psychology they follow, such as:

  • schema
  • psychodynamic
  • cognitive behavioral therapy.

Therapists also come from a variety of educational backgrounds. They may be psychologists or clinical social workers. Some may come to their graduate training from a related field such as:

  • health care
  • human resources
  • even pastoral ministry

Anyone interested in a possible therapy career should consider taking the following sample electives. A Psychotherapy Concepts course introduces students to the theoretical models for understanding behavior. Students will learn the historical and current approaches to treating mental dysfunction.

A Lifespan Development class covers aspects of human development across the lifespan, including:

  • social
  • moral
  • cognitive
  • biological
  • emotional

This trains the student to analyze the psychological facts and environmental contexts that influence normal and abnormal functioning. Many professions have industry ethics standards. A class in Professional Health Care Issues will familiarize students with legally sensitive topics like:

  • confidentiality
  • client autonomy
  • dual relationships
  • clear boundaries

Other useful psychology subjects include:

  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • feminism
  • humanism
  • socio-cultural perspectives

What are the Education Requirements?

When an individual decides to become a mental health professional, they must be prepared for the education requirements. They do need to check all of the educational boxes before practicing in order to keep everyone safe.

All therapists must begin by getting a bachelor’s degree. Many therapists earn bachelor’s degrees in psychology. Others begin in liberal arts fields for their bachelor’s degree and then shift to graduate degrees in therapy or counseling.

Beyond the bachelor’s degree, therapy training is diverse. Some students pursue a Ph.D. level degree, but this is not necessary to clinically practice. Most counselors are master’s level graduates. A doctorate-level degree tends to be for those students who are interested in becoming:

  • educators
  • researchers
  • supervisors

In addition to the required graduate-level coursework, therapist training includes practical experience, which is usually a practicum or internship. This is the final process for earning a professional license so that therapists can become licensed mental health professionals. This usually involves a set number of hours in which the student is supervised by a professional in a work setting. There is a state certification exam for becoming a licensed professional therapist. Thus, most students can anticipate completing six to eight years of higher education. This includes about:

  • four years for a bachelor’s degree
  • one to two years for both a master’s degree and clinical training or internship.

What is the Standard Bachelor’s Degree for Therapists?

A bachelor’s degree in psychology is the golden standard for anyone who wants to work in the therapy, counseling fields, or another form of mental health care. Bachelor’s degrees come in the specializations that will match the student’s therapy career goals. However, a master’s degree is required for clinical work in most states. Choosing between a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science degree in psychology should be an easy decision. The bachelor of arts offers psychology-focused courses in the social sciences. It is perfect for those who want to work in:

  • law
  • education
  • journalism
  • business

The bachelor of science degree emphasizes technical courses in:

  • math
  • science
  • statistics
  • research
  • experimentation

Psychologists earned an average salary of $100,770 in 2018.

U.S. News and World Report

A science-based degree in psychology includes a broad survey of the fundamental aspects of human thought and behavior at the different stages of life. Students learn how individual and group thoughts and behaviors are continuously influenced by socio-cultural and environmental factors. A course in general psychology will provide an overview of the history of psychology. Some of the most common topics covered include:

  • motivation
  • perception
  • intelligence
  • sensory functions
  • psychopathology.

Class topics will cover:

  • research ethics
  • cognitive neuroscience
  • scientific reasoning

Almost all psychology degrees include courses in:

  • social psychology
  • health psychology
  • abnormal psychology
  • experimental psychology
  • personality psychology.

What are the Graduate Degree Options for Therapists?

The most common graduate degree that a therapist has is in clinical mental health counseling. This popular degree teaches students about the basics of therapy:

  • statistics
  • research methods
  • needs assessment
  • psychodynamic viewpoints

From an individual perspective, students learn about:

  • personality development
  • brain functioning
  • trauma treatment

The latter is an important topic because many clients will have experienced problems ranging from domestic violence to childhood abuse to combat PTSD. One core skill is individual assessments for therapeutic counselors because they must use standardized tests to measure client functionality, struggling and needs.

From a social perspective, students will learn about:

  • the relationship dynamic
  • organizational behavior
  • social psychology

Many therapists, such as those who work with anxiety, addiction, and substance abuse problems, will deal with group counseling sessions. This is quite different from individual work because there are group dynamics, cohesion obstacles and development phases that need knowledge of working alliances and conflict management.

The second most popular graduate degree is marriage and family counseling. This degree investigates and resolves the complex dynamics of family and couple relationships. Common topics include:

  • systems theory
  • the family life cycle
  • culture and society issues

What are the Internship and Practicum Like?

The question of how long does it take to become a therapist can never be truly defined. Therapy degrees have different requirements for internships and practicums. Master’s degrees in therapy will qualify students for state licensure, so there will be mandatory clinical training. The internship will likely be completed at a faculty-approved site in tandem with writing assignments that connect field experience to relevant coursework. The practicum will involve working face-to-face with clients while being supervised by a licensed counselor. Some degree programs require students to pursue and secure their practicum and internship sites. Some students choose just one, but state licensing agencies may require both to be completed.

Most programs prefer facilities with an existing relationship and network of contacts. There may be official manuals with legal documentation and disclosures that must be signed. The practicum usually includes a weekly one-hour group meeting for discussion. This is the best chance to process coursework with work experiences and professional development. There is also a one-hour individual coaching session with a supervisor. Some of the internships require college students to commit anywhere from 15 to 20 hours a week to a community agency. Students are usually allowed two semesters to complete their programs.

What is the Credentialing Process Like?

One of the most common credentials for licensed therapists is the National Counselor Examination (NCE) that is offered through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This exam starts by testing the candidate’s counseling knowledge of issues related to things like:

  • anxiety
  • dementia
  • divorce
  • mood disorders
  • impulse control

Next, the exam explores the activities needed for directing, structuring, and facilitating:

  • sessions
  • treatments
  • interventions

This includes conducting:

  • diagnostic interviews
  • community outreach
  • referral services
  • therapeutic alliances

Counseling processes include:

  • case notes
  • legal documentation
  • treatment plans

Therapists must know how to obtain authorization for the exchange of client information and informed consent.

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The third part of the exam covers the proper application of diagnostic and assessment procedures. Therapists must perform things like:

  • biopsychosocial interviews
  • initial assessments
  • custody evaluations
  • forensic interviews
  • functional behavioral analysis

All tests and diagnostic criteria are based on the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).

The fourth section is about professional practices and standards related to client service. This includes:

  • advocating for clients
  • medical solutions
  • the profession of therapists

This section also covers:

  • self-assessments of effectiveness
  • collaborating with other professionals
  • applying the best case management approaches

The fourth section is about professional development and consultation, such as communicating with the justice system and the credentialing board. Therapists may consult with peers and other experts about medications and treatment goals in multidisciplinary team meetings.

What is an Art Therapy Specialization Like?

Art therapy programs produce competent counselors who have the knowledge and skills to positively affect the client’s behavior and treatment. Students are trained in how to help their clients engage in self-reflection while fostering the meaning of life’s experiences through art. This graduate degree includes standard exams and research papers, but also art-based assessments. Some of these degree programs will conclude in a final exam in the form of a comprehensive case study. Standard classes include:

  • art therapy methods
  • history
  • application
  • assessments
  • techniques.

Advanced classes include:

  • biopsychology
  • trauma treatment
  • spirituality in art and counseling

When applying, students’ transcripts should reflect they have passed studio art classes like including drawing, painting, and sculpting. All degree problems will want an art portfolio that includes anywhere from five to 15 pieces or slides that show proficiency in different media. Some of these programs require students to submit their undergraduate, final research-based paper on a psychology topic. Internships and practicum placements may come with certain health and other screening requirements to protect vulnerable populations. Programs at rehabilitation centers may require the students to complete a drug test and criminal background check.

What is an Educational Counseling Specialization Like?

This therapeutic degree specialization prepares counselors for professional excellence in academic settings. Students will enjoy:

  • clinical skill development
  • personal disposition growth
  • enhanced cross-cultural awareness

Being an educational counselor means having a strong sensitivity to ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender populations. Students learn counseling theories and techniques to help diverse clinical issues and needs. Educational counselors must have a firm knowledge of the legal, ethical, and moral duties and dilemmas that they will face with students.

An Educational Counseling Specialization prepares students to work in a school setting.

This degree will be grounded in relevant empirical research and the current models of school counseling programs. The American School Counselor Association and American Counseling Association usually provide these national models, policies, and procedures. Student Counseling courses teach therapists about interview and observation techniques for collecting and interpreting data that is transformed into reports. This degree also teaches students about ethical decision-making processes and the counselor’s role as a social change agent. Learning about crisis and disaster response is especially beneficial for therapists who work in public schools.

What Does a Recreational Therapist Do?

Recreational therapists direct medically appropriate recreational programs for patients. A recreational therapist provides screening, evaluation, and rehabilitation services for patients who have problems related to leisure pursuits. These issues could be social, physical, cognitive, or behavioral deficits.

Some of the treatment goals may be set by a physician. Recreational therapists may participate in outdoor-based treatment programs. They may organize and direct activities such as:

  • sports
  • theater
  • games
  • art-based crafts

All of these are designed to help patients develop:

  • confidence
  • interpersonal relationships
  • physical capabilities
  • social skills

During the activities, the recreational therapist may instruct their clients in relaxation and de-stressing techniques. These include deep breathing and concentration. Some even help the activity leaders lead the groups in stretching and exercise activities. Those who work primarily in health care settings will continually analyze and document the client’s performance and progress. Recreational therapists provide group therapy and crisis intervention to patients. They ensure that treatment plans are supported by standard policies and current literature. These therapists must be a Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist (CTRC) through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreational (NCTRC).

What Does a Substance Abuse Therapist Do?

Therapists who specialize in addictions will take graduate classes in substance abuse evaluation and treatment. They will learn the etiology and epidemiology of substance use and co-occurring disorders. These therapists know the support strategies and tools for:

  • prevention
  • intervention
  • outreach
  • recovery

They will ensure quality, people-centered care through counseling clients individually and in group sessions to overcome alcohol and drug dependency. Substance abuse therapists formulate a customized treatment and rehabilitation program for clients. They help family members deal with common problems and provide support to their relatives.

Substance abuse therapists prepare and maintain progress reports and case histories. This documentation is often used by:

  • the courts
  • physicians
  • state Child Welfare agencies

Substance abuse therapists monitor the clients’ condition to evaluate the success of therapy and compliance with treatment requirements. Every week, they conduct activities to prevent alcohol and drug abuse while encouraging healthy choices and lifestyles. They often refer the client to other support services as needed. This could be an external therapy group or a state social worker. Some specialize in community outreach programs to ensure maximum client participation and community health.

What Does a Marriage and Family Therapist Do?

Marriage and family therapists provide interventions for different diagnoses and levels of intensity. To do this properly, they must understand the impacts of trauma and how to effectively resolve it. They must also maintain clinical boundaries and professional emotional distance for safety. These therapists often collaborate with treatment providers by participating in case meetings and creating referrals for other services. Marriage and family therapists may hold a variety of credentials, such as a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).

Their job is to establish rapport with patients to build trust and confidence. The first meeting will establish the psychotherapeutic goals with goal dates and measurable outcomes. They obtain patient history and analyze the dynamics to identify progress and healing barriers. They usually complete a comprehensive assessment within the first few days of meeting with the client. They identify weekly treatment expectations and commitment contracts that are specific to individual client needs. Group family psychotherapy sessions may occur once a week and will require extra energy to mediate and resolve conflicts and historical problems.

What Does a Sex Offender Treatment Therapist Do?

These therapists work for the state Department of Corrections and probation programs. A sex offender treatment therapist is responsible for providing help to prisoners. They provide individual and group sex offender treatments while managing a challenging caseload. These therapists develop treatment plans and keep progress notes that are both a health care record and a law enforcement record. They must continually update needs and compliance assessments for the pre- and post-treatment phases. Finalizing the offender’s re-entry and transition into the community can be difficult and time-consuming.

Sex offender treatment therapists complete a variety of documentation, such as:

  • risk assessments
  • behavioral change plans
  • institutional treatment guidelines

Every week, they participate in staff meetings and liaison with mental health care providers and criminal justice professionals. They may also work directly with state officials and victim advocates to manage their caseload of sex offenders. They must often identify individualized offender risk triggers and recommend appropriate management strategies. They deliver testimony to parole boards and probation officers. Some provide workshops to external government agencies.

What Qualities Does a Therapist Need?

Therapists work with diverse clients in various settings, but they still need to share similar professional qualities. They should be able to follow company, medical and regulatory policies and guidelines. Therapists should have the ability to offer culturally sensitive advice and should be trauma-informed. This means that they have a respectful and accepting attitude toward clients and families. This includes knowledge of the best practices for gender-specific needs. Some clients may be:

  • aggressive
  • avoidant
  • manipulative
  • accusatory

Therapists must sometimes work under pressure and quickly act in high-stress situations with limited help. Thus, they must have strong negotiation and critical thinking skills. Employers prefer therapists who have a strong commitment to quality of service and participation in multidisciplinary settings.

At all times, they must maintain the safety and well-being of their clients by meeting their physical, emotional, and mental health needs. Therapists should understand:

  • the therapeutic process
  • confidentiality laws
  • professional ethics standards

They will need to comply with state requirements for reporting things like:

  • child abuse
  • elder neglect
  • domestic violence
  • danger to self and others

Therapists are required to be computer literate and hopefully have experience with clinical information systems. They are expected to function independently in a collaborative team environment. Therapists will work with other professionals such as:

  • educators
  • doctors
  • social workers
  • law enforcement

They will also work with detailed health care documentation and benefit rules and regulations.

Where Can I Find More Information?

Almost all therapy and counseling degree program websites will include relevant information regarding state licensing and board accreditation policies and processes. Remember that all therapists must comply with the Ethical Standards of the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics. Be aware that the core curriculum for therapy and counseling degrees should be aligned with the objectives established by the American Psychological Association. Graduate therapy degrees should ideally be approved by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

The following associations and groups provide additional information regarding how to become a professional therapist and the specific training requirements in the different fields.

In closing, the answer to the question ‘how long does it take to become a therapist’ is generally seven to eight years. There are entry-level jobs in non-clinical counseling that can be found in substance abuse programs and job titles like ‘assistant counselor’ in public schools. If you are looking to join the ever growing team of mental health care professionals, we hope this was helpful!

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