What Is a Clinical Therapist? Definition, Requirements and Skills

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 17, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you have a passion for psychology and helping other people, then you may want to consider a career as a clinical therapist. Clinical therapists work in many settings like care facilities, outreach agencies, mental health clinics and individual or group practices. They specialize in areas like substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, family life or mental illness. In this article, we discuss what a clinical therapist is, what job duties they have, education and licensing requirements for clinical therapists and the skills, workplace environment, job outlook and salary for this career.

What is a clinical therapist?

A clinical therapist is a counselor who identifies, analyzes and treats emotional issues or mental illnesses. Clinical therapy includes a wide variety of counseling professions like social workers, pastoral therapists, licensed mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists. It also includes a wide variety of types of therapy, such as:

  • Psychoanalytical therapy: This type of therapy focuses on reorienting problematic behaviors and thoughts by discovering their true meaning.

  • Behavioral therapy: Learning about and acquiring new behaviors is the focus of behavior therapy.

  • Cognitive therapy: This therapy focuses on changing how people act and feel through changing their thoughts.

  • Humanistic therapy: Placing importance on respect and reaching one's full potential is the focus of humanistic therapy.

  • Holistic therapy: This type of therapy focuses on using multiple different approaches depending on the patient's needs.

Typically, the terms "counselor" and "therapist" are interchangeable. They both hold master's degrees, have a license to practice and use talk therapy to help individuals and groups. While therapists and psychologists have some overlap, they are two distinct career paths. Psychologists hold a doctorate degree, have different licensing requirements and can work in a wider variety of settings.

Related: Clinical Psychologist vs. Therapist: What Is the Difference?

Clinical therapist job duties

Th typical duties for a clinical therapist include assessing the needs of a patient, designing a treatment plan for the patient and conducting therapy sessions to treat the patient. Other duties may include:

  • Monitoring the patient's progress

  • Writing treatment reports

  • Implementing case management techniques

  • Making patient referrals

  • Collecting data and performing research

  • Consulting with health professionals and other behavioral organizations

  • Using different scientific methodologies to impact treatment

Related: Everything You Need to Know About How To Become a Therapist

Clinical therapist requirements

Here are the requirements for becoming a clinical therapist:


A master's degree is the minimum educational requirement to become a clinical therapist. Common master's degrees include social work, professional counseling, psychology and family and marriage therapy. In order to qualify to work as a clinical therapist, The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) outlines core coursework that mental health programs should include, like:

  • The foundations of mental health

  • Dynamics of marriage and family therapy

  • Theories and techniques of individual and group therapy

  • Deveopmental psychhology

  • Substance abuse therapy

  • Social and cultural foundations

  • Diagnosis and psychopathology

  • Psychological testing and assessment

  • Human growth and development

  • Research and program evaluation


Most master's programs for mental health include practicums and internships. In addition, clinical therapists spend many hours practicing under the supervision of a licensed therapist. This is necessary to meet state requirements for licensure and practice. Although each state's requirements may vary, they are often quite similar. For example, most states require marriage and family therapists practice under the supervision of a licensed therapist for two years. Most states also require mental health therapists to practice under the supervision of a licensed therapist for 3,000 hours.


All states require clinical therapists to have a license and take continuing education courses in order to renew their license. However, the requirements are slightly different from state to state. Typically, to get a license you must:

  • Meet a minimum requirement for education

  • Compete a specific number of supervised clinical hours

  • Pass one or more state exams

  • Pay a fee

The type of license you need depends on your clinical therapy specialization. For example, depending on the state, a social worker needs one of the following:

  • MSW: Master of Social Work

  • LGSW: Licensed Graduate Social Worker

  • LCSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker

  • LMSW: Licensed Master Social Worker

  • LCSW-C: Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical

  • LISW: Licensed Independent Social Worker

  • LSW: Licensed Social Worker

A marriage and family therapist, depending on the state in which they work, needs one of these qualifications:

  • MA: Master of Arts

  • MFT: Marriage and Family Therapist

  • LMFT: Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

  • LCMFT: Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist

Depending on the state, a mental health counselor needs to meet one of these requirements:

  • LPC: Licensed Professional Counselor

  • LCPC: Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

  • LMHC: Licensed Mental Health Counselor

  • CPC: Certified Professional Counselor

  • LPCMH: Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health

  • LCMHC: Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor

Related: LCSW vs. Psychologist: What's the Difference?

Clinical therapist skills

Clinical therapists use many skills like empathy, communication and adaptability in their day-to-day work. Some other useful abilities and skills are:

  • Awareness of legal and ethical principles

  • Relationship building

  • Dedication to continued learning

  • Ability to handle difficult situations with understanding

  • Professional attitude, behavior and values

  • Cultural sensitivity

  • Collaboration

Related: 18 Types of Therapists To Explore as a Career

Clinical therapist work environment

A clinical therapist typically works during regular daytime business hours. There may be some occasions where they need to work evenings or weekends or travel in order to complete their work. Clinical therapists work in a variety of settings, such as:

  • Government agencies

  • Hospitals

  • Community organizations

  • The military

  • Religious institutions

  • Nursing homes

  • Prisons

  • Private practices

  • Private companies

  • Schools

  • Substance abuse clinics

Related: Mental Health Counselor vs. Psychologist

Clinical therapist job outlook and salary

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't have information specifically for clinical therapists as a category, it does have information for smaller categories included within clinical therapy, like marriage and family therapists and substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors. According to the BLS, marriage and family therapists can expect an employment growth rate of 22% from 2019 to 2029. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors can expect an employment growth rate of 25% from 2019 to 2029.

The salary for a clinical therapist varies depending on the level of education, amount of experience, geographic location, specialization and job market demand. In the United States, the average salary for a clinical therapist is $55,694 per year.

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