Counselor vs Therapists: What is the difference?

Across the mental health space, the most common practitioners you will often come across are counselors and therapists. It's important to understand the difference and why it matters.

Counselor vs Therapists: What is the difference?
Patricia Buenaventura


The mental health space is ever-growing and includes professionals with all kinds of different job titles, ranging from life coaches to social workers to psychiatrists. But two of the most common titles you will come across are counselors and therapists. These terms are often used interchangeably, and while these professions do have a lot of overlap, there are also some key differences that it’s important to understand if you are trying to decide which would work best for you, or you are planning to practice in the mental health space yourself. If you have never been able to pin down the difference between counselors and therapists, we are here to help! Just keep on reading and soon you’ll have the answer next time someone asks “what’s the difference between counselors and therapists?”.

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Who is a counselor?

A counselor is a broad term for a professional trained to provide help with a client’s problems through guidance, providing information or evaluation, and assisting with changing behaviors and attitudes. Counselors might specialize in a certain type of counseling such as marriage counseling, addiction counseling, or family counseling. A counselor may have trained specifically in the field of counseling, or they might have a background in social work, nursing, psychology, psychiatry, or a whole range of other healthcare backgrounds. While all sorts of medical professionals may offer counseling as part of their job, a licensed counselor can be distinguished by their accredited postgraduate degree in counseling, completion of thousands of closely supervised hours, and their passing of a licensing exam. As you can see, it is a big undertaking to become a licensed counselor, and so when choosing your job title in your practice or selecting the practitioner that is best for you- it’s important to also understand the difference between counseling, mentoring, and coaching.

Who is a therapist?

A therapist is also a broad term for a trained professional who will help their clients change behaviors, and attitudes, and address specific problems. However, on top of this, a therapist will also treat mental or physical health conditions. For psychotherapists, these conditions may be depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizoaffective disorders. The therapist may have been trained in techniques to combat these disorders such as CBT, MBCT, EMDR, or IPT. Other therapists may specialize in physical therapy or occupational therapy, with similar training in treatment techniques for their chosen specialization. The term therapist is often used to mean specifically psychotherapists; who are therapists that specialize in the treatment of mental disorders. To get an even better understanding, why not take a dive into the differences between psychotherapy and counseling

Are therapy and counseling one and the same?

Therapy and counseling are both very broad terms, but they are not identical. A therapist may spend their day visiting clients in their homes and helping them rehabilitate from a physical injury, whereas a counselor may spend their days helping married couples problem-solve their differences. The range of activities included under each umbrella is undoubtedly vast, and while they have significant overlap, they are not the same professions. While the problems therapists and counselors address with their clients may be the same, their approaches to helping their clients will differ. Counselors might help their clients using therapeutic techniques, but they may also conduct work that overlaps with coaches or mentors. Similarly, therapists may employ counseling techniques during their sessions, but they may also conduct work that would overlap with that of psychologists

Key differences between a counselor and a therapist

To best understand the distinctions between counselors and therapists, we have identified several key differences between the two professions.

Longevity of care

While counselors may focus on a particular problem or issue their client comes to them with, therapists tend to see their clients on a longer-term basis for the treatment of more deep-rooted issues. A counseling session could be a one-off, or you may have a set number of sessions to address a particular topic. Therapists, however, are more likely to see their patients on an ongoing basis without a set end date or a number of sessions. 

Qualifications required

Both professions generally require a postgraduate degree, most commonly a master's degree. The exact qualifications required will differ depending on the specialty of the counselor or therapist, and the location they are practicing in. The master's degree will likely be in a subject relevant to the specialty the counselor or therapist wishes to go into, for example, a counselor looking to specialize in addiction counseling could pursue a master of science in addiction counseling. An unlicenced therapist or counselor who has attained their qualification can then go on to apply for professional licensure.

Focus of practice

Counselors and therapists tend to have different focuses in their sessions with their clients. Counselors tend to focus on specific problems, challenges, or behaviors their client wants to address, and offer practical solutions to help their client make immediate progress. Therapists may see clients with many of the same problems as counselors, and while they may even offer the same advice, they will often go deeper to assess the root cause of the issue and find long-term solutions. 

Conditions treated

The conditions being treated by therapists may be more long-term than those addressed by counselors. For psychotherapists, these may be conditions such as anxiety, depression, or personality disorders. Psychotherapists may also see clients with specific issues such as marital problems, addiction, or substance abuse, but the way in which they approach the treatment of these issues will likely differ from a counselor's. Physical or occupational therapists may see clients with long-term injuries, disabilities, or deteriorating health conditions. Counselors may also see clients with mental health conditions but will focus on addressing specific problems or challenges their clients are facing rather than the therapist’s mental health-based approach. 

Standards for professional licensing

To practice professionally and independently, both therapists and counselors are required to be professionally licensed. Both professions require a significant commitment and many thousands of hours of supervised work experience before trainee therapists or counselors can apply for licensure. If the therapist wishes to go on to specialize in occupational therapy, physical therapy, or psychotherapy- these will require a separate licensure process. Both therapists and counselors must pass comprehensive licensure exams, attain a qualifying degree from an accredited program, and complete the required hours of supervised work experience- with the exact number depending on the exact program and location. 

Take home message

The main point we would hope you take away from this article, is that while therapists and counselors can have a fair amount of overlap in the types of problems they oversee, they employ different techniques, and draw upon their different qualifications and experiences in order to do their best for their clients. If you are trying to decide between seeing a counselor or a therapist, we hope this article has shed some light on the decision. And if you choose one and they realize they aren’t equipped to help you, an ethical practitioner will let you know and point you in the right direction to continue on your recovery journey. If you are trying to determine the title you use in your own practice, hopefully, you now have a better idea of which umbrella you are practicing under, and with that problem cleared up, you can focus on the other dilemmas facing practitioners starting out (such as if you should accept private pay or insurance, and if you want to practice privately or as part of a group). Carepatron is here to help every step of the way and we wish you the best on whatever journey you’re on!

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