Some people use the terms “psychologist,” “therapist.” and “counselor” interchangeably, but each has different training and different approaches to how they provide care.
From the broadest perspective, psychologists, therapists, and counselors all deal with mental, emotional, and behavioral health and often use similar methods.
However, psychologists receive extensive training in the theory and practice of abnormal psychology and are more likely to work with people with serious mental health disorders. By contrast, counselors and some therapists are more focused on helping people address emotional, social, and physical stresses to function better in their lives.
This article describes the differences between psychologists, therapists, and counselors, including the focus of their practices, their education and training, and the types of licensure and subspecialties they may pursue.
What Is a Psychologist?
A psychologist is a mental health professional trained in one or more branches of psychology who holds a doctoral degree from an accredited university or professional school. Depending on what specialty or field of practice they decide to pursue, the doctorate may be in psychology (PsyD), philosophy (PhD), or education (EdD).1
Psychologists are deeply involved in the science, theory, and practice of psychology. Because of their extensive training, they are likely to treat severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and psychoses. They are also trained to conduct psychological and neuropsychological testing.
Accredited doctoral programs are offered in:2
- Clinical psychology: This is a specialty focused on the diagnosis and treatment of psychopathies (mental health disorders). Clinical psychologists comprise around one-third of the psychologists working in the United States.3
- Counseling psychology: This field of practice is focused on addressing emotional, social, vocational, educational, developmental, and health-related problems to improve well-being, alleviate stress, and resolve crises.4
- School psychology: This field of practice is focused on addressing psychological problems affecting education in primary and secondary schools.5
Doctorate programs usually involve 5 to 7 years of training after attaining a relevant bachelor’s degree. Licensure can take an additional one to two years, with some states requiring a one-year postdoctoral residency. Subspecialties like child psychology or neuropsychology require additional training.
In the United States, full membership in the American Psychological Association (APA)—the country’s largest professional organization of psychologists—requires doctoral training.6
Despite the word “clinical,” clinical psychologists are not medical doctors. They don’t hold a medical degree (like an MD or DO) and usually can’t order medical tests or prescribe medications.
What Is a Therapist?
A therapist, also known as a psychotherapist, is a general term that can be applied to individuals who have been trained in and practice one or more types of psychotherapy (talk therapy).7 While it most often refers to people with master’s degrees, some psychologists with doctorate degrees also refer to themselves as therapists or psychological therapists.
As with psychologists, master’s level therapists are trained in different psychotherapy techniques—like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)—but generally have less training in psychological assessment, theory, and research. As such, they tend to be focused more on treatment and often within a specific area of practice.8
There are many types of master’s degrees in psychotherapy, some of the most common of which include:
- Master of Arts in Psychology (MAP): Often attained as a precursor for a doctorate degree
- Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis (MABA): Designed to work with people on the autism spectrum and with neurodiversity concerns
- Master of Science Clinical Social Work (MCSW): Employing psychotherapy and social work techniques to link people with community resources
- Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy (MLFT): Designed to provide mental and behavioral interventions to help overcome family and other relationship problems
Master’s degree programs take two to three years after attaining your bachelor’s degree followed by a period of supervised clinical work.9
Master’s level therapists often need licenses to practice and will only see patients that fall under their specific area of expertise.9
What Is a Counselor?
A counselor generally refers to a mental health professional trained in a specific area of practice who delivers shorter-term, goal-oriented care to overcome specific life challenges. Depending on the area of practice (and the state in which they practice), a counselor may or not require a license.9
While many counselors attain a bachelor’s degree, some states will license a counselor with an associate’s degree. Those who attain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will usually need to complete a set number of supervised hours before they can be licensed by the state or certified nationally.
Bachelor’s level counselors may attain degrees in fields such as:
- Alcohol and substance abuse counseling
- Marriage counseling
- School and career counseling
For some areas of practice, like grief counseling, mental health counseling, or rehabilitation counseling, you may only be able to practice as a counseling aide until you attain a master’s degree.9
Which Is Right for Me?
The choice of the “right” mental health professional ultimately depends on your individual needs and circumstances.
From the broadest perspective:
- Psychologists are valuable when you have a chronic (ongoing) mental health condition that is causing extreme distress and undermining your quality of life.
- Therapists are generally intended for ongoing care when time is needed to overcome an emotional, behavioral, social, or relationship concern.
- Counselors may be the best option if you need short-term intervention to overcome a specific, immediate concern.
But there are no hard and fixed rules. There is a lot of overlap between what a psychologist, therapist, and counselor can help you with, and the “right” choice may ultimately be based on who you can work with in an open, honest, and cooperative manner.
Another issue may be cost. Although by no means a rule, psychologists and therapists tend to cost more than counselors, but this may not be an issue based on your insurance coverage. Many insurance plans cover some or all of the cost of therapy from a licensed practitioner.
If you don’t have insurance, speak with different providers about payment options or if discounts or low-income subsidies are available. Group counseling is typically less expensive than one-on-one counseling.
Difference between a Therapy and Counseling
The terms “therapy” and “counseling” are often used interchangeably, leading to some confusion about the services provided by professionals in these fields. However, there are subtle differences in the focus, goals, and approaches of therapy and counseling.
Therapy typically refers to a broader range of interventions aimed at addressing emotional, psychological, or behavioral issues. It often delves deep into the past and explores how it shapes the present, focusing on personal growth and self-awareness. Therapists can provide services such as psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or psychodynamic therapy.
Counseling, on the other hand, tends to be more short-term and solution-focused. It usually deals with specific issues and challenges, providing guidance, advice, and coping strategies. Counselors often specialize in areas such as marriage and family counseling, addiction counseling, or career counseling.
Is Therapist and Counselor the Same?
The terms “therapist” and “counselor” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t precisely the same. The primary distinction lies in the scope of practice and the educational background required.
A therapist is a broader term that encompasses counselors. Therapists usually have a higher level of education and training, often holding master’s or doctoral degrees in psychology, social work, counseling, or related fields. They can diagnose and treat a wider range of mental health issues and often engage in more in-depth therapeutic interventions.
Counselors, while also trained to help individuals with their mental and emotional concerns, may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Their focus is often on specific life challenges and practical solutions. They may not have the same level of training to handle complex mental health disorders.
Which is Better, Counselor or Therapist?
The choice between a counselor and a therapist isn’t about one being inherently better than the other. Instead, it depends on your specific needs and the nature of the issues you’re dealing with.
If you’re facing a specific challenge, like career decisions or relationship problems, a counselor may be the better choice due to their solution-focused approach. They can provide practical guidance and strategies to help you navigate these challenges.
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with deeper emotional or psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, or unresolved trauma, a therapist might be more appropriate. Their training and expertise in providing psychotherapy can help you explore the root causes of these issues and work towards long-term healing and personal growth.
Difference between Counselor and Therapist and Psychologist
While we’ve already explored the differences between counselors and therapists, it’s essential to distinguish how psychologists fit into this landscape. Psychologists, like therapists, have advanced degrees, typically holding a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology.
The key difference between psychologists and therapists lies in their approach and services. Psychologists are highly trained in assessing and diagnosing mental health conditions. They often conduct psychological testing and research and can offer therapeutic interventions. Psychologists are equipped to provide in-depth assessments and treatment for a wide range of mental health issues.
In summary, choosing between a licensed counselor, therapist, or psychologist depends on your specific needs and the severity of the issues you’re facing. Counselors are excellent for practical, short-term challenges, therapists are well-suited for in-depth emotional and psychological concerns, and psychologists provide a broad range of psychological assessments and treatments. Regardless of your choice, seeking professional help is a positive step towards better mental health and well-being.