Alex Alverson, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist at Shepherd Center, provides an overview of psychotherapy for Mental Health Awareness Month.
By Alex Alverson, Ph.D.
Clinical Neuropsychologist at Shepherd Center
Psychotherapy and counseling can be mysterious. From confidentiality laws to the stigma surrounding mental illness, there are multiple reasons that people may not know what happens behind the closed doors of a therapy office. Because of this lack of familiarity, seeking out therapy can be uncomfortable, if not downright intimidating. Roughly one in five people meet criteria for a mental illness, and only about half get treatment. At Shepherd Center, many of our patients receive therapy for a variety of reasons including depression and anxiety, adjustment to injury, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more. As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power,” so let’s get to know the basics of psychotherapy!
Psychotherapy is not “one size fits all.” In fact, there are many different types of psychotherapy. Some are specifically designed for certain mental health conditions; others can be adapted to a wider range of conditions. Here are a few examples:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) addresses the relationships between our thoughts (cognitions), feelings (emotions) and actions (behaviors). CBT gives us tools to deconstruct and examine our thoughts, and ultimately replace unhelpful thoughts (“Nobody likes me.”) with more realistic or adaptive thoughts (“I am important to close friends and family who care about me.”). CBT has been shown to be very effective in treating a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, as well as problems with pain and insomnia.
- Exposure therapy comes in several formats, designed for conditions like specific phobias (e.g., fear of public speaking, fear of flying), and PTSD. Exposure is just what it sounds like. These treatments expose us to something that we fear – either in real life or in our imagination – until our brain no longer sees that thing as a threat. It’s not easy, but it’s highly effective.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) often includes mindfulness-based skills and teaches that we can create meaning in our lives and be present in the moment, in spite of stress, pain or suffering. Acceptance of circumstances beyond one’s control and commitment to actions that are consistent with one’s values are components of this treatment approach. ACT has been used successfully to treat depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and substance abuse and dependence.
If you’re considering seeking treatment for a mental health condition, there are a number of different professionals who may be able to help. A few types of specialists are indicated below. It is important to note that each state may have different ways to define the scope of practice of mental health professionals and their qualifications. Relevant information may be obtained from your state government (e.g., Department of Health and Human Services).
- Psychologists have obtained doctoral degrees (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) and are trained in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Psychologists’ licenses are maintained by the state(s) in which they practice.
- Psychiatrists hold medical degrees (M.D. or D.O.) and have completed specialized training though residency in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications for mental health conditions, as well. Psychiatrists are licensed by the medical board in the state in which they practice.
- Other professionals who have earned master’s degrees (M.A. or M.S.) in psychology or a related mental health field (e.g., marriage and family therapy) may also provide mental health services such as counseling. Licenses and certifications for counselors vary by state, but may include licensed professional counselors (LPC), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT).
- Other related professions include, but are not limited to, social workers, peer specialists and pastoral counselors.
If this still feels overwhelming, that’s okay! There is not one “right answer” to what may work for you. This may come as a surprise, but diagnosis, treatment type and what kind of provider you see are not the most important factors in the success of therapy. Your relationship with your therapist is! The “right provider” for you will be someone who earns your trust, who you feel comfortable with and who sees you as who you are, not your diagnosis.
Ask your primary care provider (PCP) if you are interested in finding a psychologist or counselor. If you would like more information on mental illness and treatment options, you can visit organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) or your state’s psychological association (e.g., gapsychology.org).
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.