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What Is a Therapist? The Complete Definition

Many people will have a similar picture pop into their mind when they hear or see the word therapist — a man or woman sitting cross-legged in a chair, probably wearing glasses and scribbling notes while asking questions like “and how did that make you feel?” 

While this is not necessarily a false or inaccurate picture to have, there is a lot more to a therapist than it may seem. First and foremost, a therapist is a licensed and highly educated medical professional. They are no different than medical doctors in the sense of what their goals are: to get a person as healthy as they can possibly be. 

The difference between the two is how they go about accomplishing that goal. Because we can see the physical effects more clearly and faster, we tend to give more credit to physical doctors. However, therapists are able to help in ways that are harder to see. A broken bone being healed is much easier to see and achieve than treating a mental illness. This is why therapists often don’t get the credit they deserve and are not always as understood or respected as medical doctors. 

What Is a Therapist?

The word therapist is a relatively broad term, but its definition refers to professionals that are trained to provide treatments and rehabilitation. The definition of therapy is any treatment that is designed to relieve or heal a disorder, so naturally, a therapist would be defined as someone who does exactly that. 

While the term is typically applied to psychologists, it can also include others that provide these services, such as social workers, life coaches, counselors, and others in similar fields. The word therapist specifically is not a protected occupation title, but most therapists will need a license in order to practice. 

Occupational therapists, marriage counselors, and family therapists will all need to be certified in order to label themselves as such. Some of the most common issues that a mental health counselors will help to treat include:

  • Anxiety
  • Anorexia
  • Behavioral issues such as bipolar disorder
  • Bulimia
  • Coping With chronic illness or health problems
  • Depression
  • Difficulty coping with change
  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative thinking
  • Questions about sexuality or gender
  • Relationship problems
  • Sleeping related issues
  • Social issues
  • Stress
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harming
  • Trauma such as sexual assault

What Does a Therapist Do?

A good therapist is a licensed medical professional that will evaluate, diagnose and treat people suffering from emotional and mental disorders. In order to treat these individuals diagnosed with mental health-related illnesses and disorders, a therapist will use a treatment plan that utilizes family systems theories and psychotherapeutic techniques. 

Because the definition of the term therapist is so broad, it can be difficult to give specific examples or details of what a therapist does. Some of the more common services that a therapist will provide are helping their patients cope with a mental illness, assisting in recognizing and altering potentially damaging behaviors, teaching their patients coping mechanisms, positive thinking patterns, and stress managing techniques. 

Different Types of Therapists

As stated previously, the term therapist is an umbrella term that covers many different occupations. While there are lots of similarities between the different versions of therapists, there are also a lot of key differences as well. Here are some of the more popular types of therapists to see which is the right therapist to look for, what they treat, and how they will treat it:

  • Addiction therapist: This is a specially trained counselor that has the knowledge, skill, and clinical experience to assist their clients in overcoming issues stemming from substance abuse. Either in the form of individual therapy sessions, where a therapist will help their client work through trauma related to their addiction or in a group setting where the fellow addicts will help work together with the therapist to support one another’s recovery.
  • Behavioral therapist: These therapists typical work with a client that experiences difficulties in their life related to a mental disorder, For instance, if a young client suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is struggling to function on a daily basis they might need to seek mental health services. A behavioral therapist will help them to develop skills and coping strategies in order to help minimize the impact of ADHD through mental health care.
  • Child therapist: These are highly trained counselors that have specific skills and knowledge in order to provide therapy for children under the age of 17. A child therapist will address a large variety of issues such as mental disorders, behavioral disorders, and difficulties stemming from emotional problems.
  • Clinical therapist: Similar to a behavioral therapist, a clinical therapist will use their training to provide clients with therapeutic interventions in order to help them overcome the difficulties they have in relation to a mental health issue. Additionally, a clinical therapist will work closely with their client in order to examine methods of improving their quality of life and treating the underlying issues that could be causing the client’s emotional issues.
  • Cognitive therapist: Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thoughts that a client has that may be negatively impacting their mental health. Their goal is to work to help their clients identify potentially problematic thought patterns and create new, healthier thinking that will lead to greater functionality and higher quality of life. 
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapist: These are highly specialized counselors that will use psychotherapeutic and behavioral techniques in order to assist their clients by addressing a wide range of psychological issues and disorders such as depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. These therapists put a special emphasis on educating their clients along with making achievable goals and measuring the progress made by the client. 
  • Divorce therapist: A therapist that specializes in working with couples that feel like their marriage has reached its end. Divorce therapists may work with the couple as a unit or with each person individually. Some of the common issues that are dealt with include infidelity, communication issues, inequality, and abuse. 
  • Exercise therapist: This type of therapist operates at the crossroads of physical and mental health. Being physically fit can generally improve a person’s mental health. These therapists will use exercise as a therapeutic tool in order to help their clients become more physically healthy, which will improve their mental and emotional health as a result.
  • Licensed Marriage and family therapist: These therapists are highly trained in using psychotherapy and mental health approaches in order to identify, diagnose and treat mental disorders or behaviors that are disrupting marriages and families through family therapy. A marriage or family therapist will work with families or couples to help them resolve issues as a whole or by focusing on individuals within the family unit.
  • School therapist: This therapist will work with students of all ages in order to help guide them toward making positive goals and working to achieve them. A school therapist may help skill building with developmentally delayed elementary students, behavioral modification in middle schoolers with ADHD, and help prepare high school students for the next phase of their life.
  • Social therapist: Similar to sociologists, a social therapist focuses on how a person’s behavior is influenced by the people around them. They will seek to understand issues related to relationships, depression, and grief within the context of different groups such as age, economic, or ethnicity and work towards helping people within these groups cope with issues.
  • Social work therapist: This field is focused mostly on advocacy for marginalized groups of people. These therapists will assist their clients in finding the resources they need in order to live a healthy and productive a life as possible. For example, a social work therapist may coordinate services for a developmentally disabled person so they are awarded the opportunity to live more independently.
  • Trauma work therapist: These are specially trained therapists that aim to help people deal with the stressors and triggers they may encounter that are associated with specific traumas such as being abused, the death of a loved one, or surviving a natural disaster. A trauma therapist is essentially the first responder in the mental health community and their goal is to stabilize the client in the immediate aftermath of trauma before other therapists can help repair the damage.

The Takeaway

 A therapist or mental health professional is a medical professional that works with a client in order to identify, diagnose and treat their mental health conditions or emotional issues to better their well-being. There are countless different variations of therapy, such as psychotherapists that helps through talk therapy, what they treat and how they treat it, but the goal is the same: help their client live the best possible version of their life as independently as possible by enhancing their mental wellness.

Therapy has grown in popularity over the years as the results and benefits have become undeniable. For a long time, there has been a negative stigma surrounding the idea of seeking therapy, but every year that is quieted down a little more. It is good for anyone looking to better their mental health to look for a potential therapist through a referral from their insurance company. It’s almost impossible to navigate the complicated situations and experiences of life without help and what better help is available than that of a highly educated, licensed, and qualified medical professional


  1. What is a therapist? (verywellmind.com) 
  2. 17 Types of Therapists and Salaries (psychologyschoolguide.net)
  3. A Guide to Different Types of Therapy (healthline.com)

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