How many years do you spend in school to be a therapist? Would I be right for this field?
I am a Junior in High school, and I am currently 16 years old. I also really like helping others and I always feel what others feel really deeply.
#therapist #psychology #therapy
Dr. Carolyn Cowl-Witherspoon
Dr. Carolyn’s Answer
To become licensed as any kind of mental health professional who provides therapeutic services to clients, you must obtain at least a master’s degree. As you probably know, a bachelor’s degree usually takes four years of college, and a master’s degree usually takes 2 to 3 years of college, if you attend school full time. The school and program that you choose will often determine how long it takes for you to complete your bachelors and master’s degrees.
It’s important to remember that completing a master’s degree does not automatically allow you to begin providing therapeutic services to clients. After you complete your degrees, you will be required to intern and be supervised by licensed mental health professionals in your field for a specified period of time. This critical process allows you to practice the skills you learned during your degree coursework on actual clients, under the close supervision of experienced, licensed supervisors, until you obtain enough hours of clinical experience to sit for the licensing exams required for your area of specialization. Only after you pass all your licensing exams can you legally begin providing licensed therapeutic care to clients. To obtain the supervised hours required, before you can sit for your exams, may take one to two years, depending on your area of specialization, your intern site, how many hours you work each week, and your supervisors’ view of your progress and mastery of therapeutic techniques and client interactions.
Another important consideration you will have to make is which kind of mental health professional would you like to be, and what population do you want to serve? There are many options, and I would recommend that you begin researching the differences between them now so that you will have some idea of what you think you might prefer before you get to college. For example, master’s degree level options include social work, marriage and family therapy, and counselors, etc. If, however, you would like to become a psychologist, that will require you obtain a Ph.D. (also called a doctorate). Obtaining a doctorate takes anywhere from 4 to 7 additional years of study to complete the coursework and research required to earn the advanced degree. And then you will still have to acquire thousands of hours of internship and supervision before you can sit for your licensing exams and earn the title of being a licensed psychologist. You may also want to consider becoming a psychiatrist, which is an even longer educational journey, requiring you to attend medical school and the specialization required to become a licensed psychiatrist.
Questions to consider in trying to make this important decision my include how you feel about school, homework, writing, studying, working hard to obtain academic goals, getting honest feedback and evaluations from your professors, working closely with supervisors who will critique your work and offer suggestions for how you can improve, and how you feel about taking very difficult and very significant exams that are required for obtaining licensure in any field of mental health professionals.
Therefore, you want to make sure that you have the right temperament and expectations needed to complete any program that you start. All the programs are rigorous and challenging, and they’re meant to be because the work you’ll be doing will be very important. It’s also important to know that many students successfully complete these programs, and I’m sure you can, too! It just takes hard work, discipline, tenacity, resilience, and the focused desire to make it through.
Now to your second question. It sounds like you have a helping heart and may be very empathic, which means that you care and feel what other people are feeling. This may be a benefit when doing therapeutic work, but it can also be problematic. When you provide therapeutic care for clients it is essential maintain appropriate boundaries. This means that you can’t become so involved in the life stories and problems of your clients that you accidentally or unintentionally internalize their emotional states. This is very easy to do, and even the best mental health professional can sometimes have this happen to them. The way you learn to avoid this is through appropriate training, honest discussions with your supervisor for strategies to prevent it, and consistent self-reflection and self-care. You will learn many terms as you study psychology, including words like transference and countertransference, which may occur in any therapeutic interaction. So being empathetic can make you a very effective mental health care provider, or it can make you more vulnerable to absorbing the pain, frustration, anger, depression, or despair of your clients (just to give a few examples).
So you may want to consider whether you can listen to what others have to say with a caring and open attitude, without allowing whatever they are experiencing to personally affect you. Again, training, training, training and supervision supervision, supervision will help you develop the skills you need to be aware of these blurring boundaries and how to protect yourself and your clients from them.
There are many more things to consider, but these suggestions are a great place for you to start. Thinking about them ahead of time will help you make a well-informed decision about what career path you should follow. I would recommend that you continue reaching out to mental health professionals to ask them their advice and suggestions for any questions that you might have. Most mental health professionals are open to providing students with suggestions or advice to consider, as we all remember how challenging it was for us to make the same decisions as we were trying to decide what career path to follow. Also, do some research on your own as to the differences between mental health provider careers, to see which one seems more appealing to you and reflects the best fit for your professional goals.
The mental health professions need caring people to make a difference in the lives of others. I wish you the very best of luck on your academic and professional journey! Feel free to reach out again if you have any more questions!