What is Psychotherapy?

By Lizette J. Smith, PhD.

Psychotherapy is a form of treatment for persons experiencing difficulties in daily living.  Licensed mental health practitioners, such as psychologists and clinical social workers have been trained to utilize scientifically and research-based procedures to manage these problems.  Although many persons think of psychotherapy as “talk therapy”, there are many types of therapy that can be applied depending on a person’s age, the type of challenges faced, their values, life circumstances, and culture.  For example, Play Therapy is a highly specialized form of treatment that is effective for young children and that assists social and emotional expression through means that match the developmental level of a child.     

There are many reasons that persons might seek psychotherapy and many of these are encountered in everyday life.  Psychotherapy can be applied for treatment of depression and anxiety; behavior disorders; trouble functioning; coping with changes, relationship problems of families, marriage, or divorce; job loss or stress; parenting; substance abuse; or the death of a loved one.  Additionally, psychotherapy may be used to manage symptoms of a chronic mental illness or a medical condition.

How do you know when you or your child may benefit from psychotherapy?  When your or your child’s emotions or thoughts are overwhelming you/them for more days than not, and over a few weeks of time; when your and your child’s handling of troubling problems is not getting better, even though you are trying your best; you or your child can’t concentrate or function well in relationships, friendships, as a parent, at work, or at school; you or your child are engaging in dangerous or ineffective actions, such as not getting along with peers or teachers; acts of violence; drinking too much alcohol; drug use; or harming yourself and others.

In psychotherapy, changes and improvements are often based on the relationship between the therapist with the individual, family, or group.  It provides a setting that is a supportive and safe place to openly address difficulties with a professional who is objective and neutral.  Through this relationship, thoughts, behaviors, and sometimes circumstances, can be clearly identified and patterns changed.  New skills are learned to cope with future difficulties, even after therapy has ended.  The therapist may begin with gathering information to fully assess the circumstances or your condition.  The s/he may assign you and your child tasks in sessions or “homework” between your sessions.  These may include tasks such as writing down when certain thoughts, emotions and behaviors occur; practicing new skills in real-life settings; or reading and learning new information.

Research that looks at the outcomes of psychotherapy have consistently shown that psychotherapy is effective for treating a range of emotional and behavioral difficulties, improving coping skills for everyday struggles, and managing symptoms of chronic disorders.  Successful treatment has been shown to depend on the presence of the following factors: 

  • Use of research-based treatment methods validated as appropriate for the specific problem addressed.
  • Therapist’s level of experience and clinical expertise in providing treatment.
  • Inclusion of the clients’ characteristics, values, culture, and preferences in treatment planning.

The psychotherapist that you select should be licensed by your state.  The state license indicates that the therapist has completed the necessary education, training, and requirements to practice competently, ethically, and independently.  Finding a psychotherapist that may well with you, your child, or your family may include:

  • Getting recommendations from family or friends you trust and who say they had a positive experience.
  • Contacting your health insurance company for referrals to providers covered by your benefits.
  • Going on-line for your local or state professional psychological association and social work association to get names of therapists.
  • Asking the counselor at your child’s school, faith-based leaders, or physician for referrals.
  • If you and your child live in St. Louis city or St. Louis county, calling the Youth Connection Helpline at 314-819-8802 or Toll Free 1-844-985-8282.  In Jefferson County, you may call toll free at 844-846-2501

You can call the therapist and ask to pose some questions before deciding on therapy. You will first want to know if they are accepting new clients.  You may ask about their educational degrees, training, and license to practice.  You may also ask about their approach to therapy, expertise in treating the difficulty you are presently facing, their areas of specialization, policies regarding missed appointments, and you may share your cultural values and concerns.  It is likely to be helpful to ask about the ages and groups with whom they work: young children, youth, adults, individuals, or families.  Be sure to ask about their fees and methods of payment; on which insurance plans do they participate; and whether they have a sliding fee scale for payment.

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  As we support May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it is our hope that you will have many resources to enhance your health.  If you choose psychotherapy, may you “fight in the open”, benefit and go on to live well!