Counselors vs. Therapists vs. Psychologists: Key Differences

If you are considering a career as a mental health professional, it can be exciting (and potentially overwhelming) to learn of the many job titles and career paths available to pursue. While the variety of jobs increases your chances of aligning your career and interests, understanding the differences among available roles can make choosing the “right” path a daunting task. 

Three of the most common job titles in the mental health industry are counselor, therapist, and psychologist. But what is the difference between these job titles? Are counselors, therapists, and psychologists really that different from one another, or are they more similar than different?

While there is overlap between these three careers, there are specific differences which you should understand before embarking on a career in the field. Here, we explore those differences. 

What is a counselor?

The term counselor is used to broadly refer to a professional trained in the fields of psychology, counseling, social work, or a range of medical fields such as nursing. Mental health counselors, specifically, are those professionals working in a mental health capacity. 

Mental health counselors perform many functions and responsibilities. Their duties include conducting patient evaluations, providing education and informational resources to their clients, and making suggestions that the client or patient can use to solve the problem they are seeking counseling to address. Often, mental health counselors will specialize in addressing a particular issue, such as substance abuse, sexual abuse, marriage and relationships, or family counseling, among others.

What is a therapist?

therapist is an individual that has been professionally trained to provide some form of therapy to a patient or client that addresses either mental or physical disorder. Examples of therapy used in the context of physical medicine can include physical therapists and occupational therapists. In the context of mental health, the terms mental health therapist and psychotherapist are common.

As with counselors, therapists will often specialize in addressing particular client issues, such as marriage and family issues, substance abuse, etc. 

The Difference Between Therapists and Counselors

If the two definitions above sound very similar, it’s because they are. Mental health counselors and therapists occupy the same professional space, treating the same issues within the same patient populations. Even within the industry, you can find the terms used interchangeably in some contexts.

However, the key difference between counselors and therapists lies in the approach to treatment that they take.

As a practice, counseling often addresses specific problems, challenges, or behaviors in a patient’s life in a very practical way. A counselor working with a patient who suffers from anxiety might, for example, provide the patient with different tactics that they can use to ward off a pending panic attack. Or they might give an alcoholic patient a set series of steps to follow when they feel a craving coming on. In this regard, there is a certain problem-solving approach inherent in counseling.

Therapists work to help their patients address similar issues, and often provide the same advice that counselors might. However, a key difference is that therapists often seek to go deeper by helping the patient understand the how and why behind a challenge. For example, what scenarios tend to bring on an alcoholic craving and why; what situations are more likely to trigger a panic attack and why? What is the root of these issues? They seek to identify the source of these issues through a combination of talk therapy and other frameworks.

As such, counseling is often (though not always) a short-term approach, arming the patient with tools they can put into action immediately to begin living a more healthy life. Therapy, on the other hand, is often a longer-term process that can last months or even years as the therapist and client seek out the root of the issues being addressed to make lasting change.

Despite these differences, there is significant overlap between therapists and counselors, and they will often borrow from each other’s playbook. Additionally, both therapists and counselors will typically be master’s level clinicians licensed by the state in which they practice. A Master of Science in Counseling Psychology is a commonly held degree, and common licenses include Licenced Mental Health Counselors (LHMCs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs). Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) may also hold the title of counselor or therapist. 

What is a psychologist?

Another common job title within mental health counseling is that of a psychologist. Whereas therapists and counselors may be considered more alike than different, the difference is more pronounced for psychologists.

psychologist is similar to mental health counselors and therapists in that they also work to improve their patients’ mental and emotional health. The techniques and frameworks that they use tend to differ, however. Additionally, psychologists are more likely than counselors to treat patients with severe mental disorders. With this in mind, becoming a counseling psychologist will typically require a higher level of education, such as earning a PhD in Counseling Psychology.

Choosing The Right Career For Your Future

If you’re considering entering the mental health field, it’s important to understand the various available job functions so you can choose a career path that aligns with your interests and goals. While there are many different variations of the titles discussed above, the most common will be counselor, therapist, and psychologist. Though these are related in many ways, the differences are also significant and can substantially change the trajectory of your career. 

Jumpstart your career today by learning more about the skills and experience needed to succeed in counseling psychology.