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What to Expect in Mental Health Therapy

Make the Most of Your Treatment

Do you feel like you just need to talk to someone?

During psychotherapy, sometimes called talk therapy, you can speak with a trained professional in a confidential and protected setting. Your therapist can help you explore and understand feelings, trauma, and other aspects of your emotional and mental health.

Learn how to get started and what to expect to make the most of your therapy.

Find a Fit

If you are unsure where to start in your search for a mental health professional, consult your primary care physician for a potential referral or recommendation. You should always choose an educated and licensed mental health professional. Many meet these qualifications.

  • Psychiatrists are licensed physicians with psychiatric training. They can provide therapy, diagnose mental health conditions, and prescribe and monitor medications.
  • Psychologists hold a doctoral degree in clinical psychology or another applicable specialty. They can make diagnoses, and provide both individual and group therapy.
  • Licensed counselors, clinicians and therapists who hold master's degrees are trained to evaluate your mental health and use therapeutic techniques for treatment.
  • Clinical social workers are trained to evaluate your mental health and use therapeutic techniques based on specific training programs. They are also trained in case management and advocacy services.

No matter which type of professional you end up choosing, you should work with someone you feel comfortable with. It's all about finding the right fit, says Sheehan D. Fisher, PhD, a psychologist at Northwestern Medicine. For example, you might prefer to talk with someone of a certain gender identity, sexuality or race.

If it is not a good fit, move on to someone else.

"Therapy is a place where you can lay out all the cards on the table to help improve your life," he says. "It's important to choose a therapist who you think will help you heal and grow rather than to just serve as a means of encouragement."

In the Room (or on the Screen)

In therapy, you will often work in a conversation format, with the conversation led by your mental health clinician. Through this, you will touch on past and current experiences, feelings, thoughts, relationships, problems and more.

Your therapist can then make connections and share insights about you, your life and your emotional well-being. Depending on the findings, they might also recommend exploring different therapy options.

Dr. Fisher says that making the most out of each therapy session means you must be vulnerable and honest — as well as open to new ways of thinking.

"If you are doubtful of therapy, I ask you to let go of that doubt," he says. "You get out of it what you put in."

It is also important to understand your goals, such as healing from a trauma or practicing a more mindful life, says Dr. Fisher.

After the Session

One of the most important aspects of therapy is what occurs outside of the session.

First, you might experience emotional exhaustion at times. Dr. Fisher says that is not only normal but a sign that you are putting in the right effort.

"It's almost like getting a massage," he explains. "You might be sore, but that means it's working."

Remember that you need to be invested in your well-being at all times, not just when you have a session. Your job is to take what you learn in therapy and bring those insights into your daily life.

If You Need Help Now

Therapy can be a valuable way to regularly support your mental health, but always keep in mind that if you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.