Essential Understanding: What is psychotherapy?

September 25, 2020

Friday, September 25th is recognized as “National Psychotherapy Day” in the United States. In healthcare, we have observed that some patients, clients, and providers seem to have an aversion to the idea of psychotherapy, probably due to the stigma associated with the term or related terms. As a team of therapists working to promote behavioral health integration and whole-person care, the Center of Excellence for Integrated Care staff wanted to use today as an opportunity to promote a better understanding of psychotherapy.

The term “psychotherapy” comes from the ancient Greek word roots of “Psyche” which means breath, spirit, or soul, and “Therapeia” which means healing or medical treatment. Those root meanings are a long way from the often stigmatized vernacular term of “psycho.” Additionally, the historically popularized image of therapy — during which clients lay on a couch while a therapist proclaims hypotheses about childhood experiences and current mental illness — have contributed to a misunderstanding about the expectations and outcomes regarding psychotherapy.

What is psychotherapy?

In the context of mental health treatment, psychotherapy is often used interchangeably with the terms “therapy” and “counseling.” Though some professionals in the mental health field have highlighted distinct differences between psychotherapy and counseling, psychotherapy remains the name of the service of providing talk therapy. At COE, we advocate that there should be a common understanding of the language used to describe any therapy services, outpatient or integrated. However, we think that whichever term feels most comfortable to clients/patients and their care team is appropriate. Most important is that the client is well aware of the service they are consenting to receive.

What happens in psychotherapy?

Therapy could be beneficial to most everyone; you do not have to have a serious and persistent mental illness to benefit from therapy. Many people participate in psychotherapy to work on challenging relationships, cope with stress, adjust to new life situations, and explore self-identity.

Once you identify a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working — see this page about identifying a behavioral health provider — you will work toward developing a safe and trusting working relationship with your therapist. The therapist’s role is to help you walk through your challenges, versus the commonly held assumption about offering direct advice or making decisions for you. You and your therapist will work collaboratively to set goals, and both you and your therapist will establish boundaries about the work you will do in therapy. Sometimes therapy will primarily involve talking. Other times your therapist may introduce various activities into therapy, such as creative expression or role-playing to help practice talking through relational issues.

The COE team hopes that this discussion has helped improve awareness and understanding about psychotherapy — and provided some normalization about the therapy process — in honor of National Psychotherapy Day.

If you would like to learn more about providing whole-person care involving psychotherapy, please reach out to us!

Other resources:

Psychology Today locate a therapist.

Therapist Locator.net

Emotion Focused Therapist Locator

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