Difference between psychotherapy and counseling

In mental healthcare, it's common for clients to confuse counseling and psychotherapy. Many sources cite these professions interchangeably when they are vastly different.

Difference between psychotherapy and counseling
Chloe Smith


Within the mental health care space, many different resources, clinicians, and other guidance tools tend to confuse the terms counseling and psychotherapy. Many sources cite this terminology as synonymous, when the reality is, they are vastly different professions with their own nuances. Unfortunately, it's not super easy to find the answer to which term to use and in what context, which is why we're here to help! This guide will assist you in being able to point out the differences between both disciplines, as well as help solidify your knowledge when it comes to counseling and psychotherapy. 

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Overview on counseling

Counseling involves working through emotional challenges with clients, and typically involves talk therapy, amongst other clinical activities to support the client's ability to overcome mental health issues. Counseling normally involves working with clients who can think rationally and focuses on building upon frameworks to collaboratively find solutions. It is a specific approach and usually focuses on one problem at a time for both short-term and long-term issues. Many counselors will work to expose troubling and difficult emotional experiences and help the client recognize and talk through them.

Meaning of psychotherapy from a consumer’s perspective

On the other hand, psychotherapy works a lot deeper than counseling. Usually, over a long period of time, psychotherapists will work with clients to reveal deep-rooted emotional issues such as trauma, and other contributors to their current state of mind. This can involve introspective deep dives into the client's personality, mind and emotions, with psychotherapists working towards imparting therapeutic knowledge to the client so they may regain control of their life. Psychotherapy can produce rich insight into the longstanding issues of the client and can deal with a multitude of issues at once.

Key differences between counseling and psychotherapy

Following on, it is important to recognize that counseling and psychotherapy are two very different fields with their own unique approaches to dealing with the mental and emotional health of clients.

Methods used

Counseling relies on more collaborative methods to treat mental health issues, and typically focuses on immediate solutions to current issues. For many clients, counseling offers temporary methods for the short term, with tools that allow clients to take control of their own issues. In general, counseling is less in-depth whereas psychotherapy goes into much greater detail. Psychotherapy uses intensive methods to uncover past experiences and to awaken beliefs and values that clients may not be aware of. Psychotherapy employs more of a search and investigation method when it comes to alleviating mental difficulties, which may take more time. 


Counseling may deal with clients who are in a relatively good state of mind but are facing troubling situations. These clients are likely to work collaboratively with the counselor and can initiate proactiveness when it comes to mental health treatment, which differs significantly from psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, clients are immensely dependent on the psychotherapist to improve their state of mind. Clients in this condition may feel out of control, and they may not have a good grasp on their mental health in general. Psychotherapists may deal with more intensive emotional traumas and situations due to the nature of this treatment.


Both disciplines also have very distinct focuses. For example, counseling focuses on life challenges that many individuals may face at some point in time, whereas psychotherapy works to improve mental health challenges that are in more progressive stages. Counseling issues may include relationship problems, work stresses, and family issues, whereas psychotherapy is heavily involved with the person's feelings, beliefs, values, and fundamental factors.

Inpatient vs outpatient context

Counseling is typically within an outpatient context, meaning the clients meet for a session for anywhere up to an hour, whereas psychotherapy involves both inpatient and outpatient settings. Some psychotherapy assessments may require a longer time to uncover valuable insight that can contribute to higher clinical outcomes.

Issues addressed

As briefly touched on, counseling and psychotherapy also address separate issues as part of their wider focus. Counseling addresses general career, social, and relational issues whereas psychotherapy may focus on deep-rooted psychological issues. In some cases, this may progress to medical territory, as individuals with mental health disorders may seek treatment and/or assessment. Diagnosable mental health issues are likely to be evaluated, whereas counseling is heavily wellness oriented. 


Both counselors and psychotherapists require recognized qualifications in order to be authorized. However, counselors do not have to undergo years of intensive training, whereas psychotherapists may undertake an undergraduate, master's, or Ph.D. degree in order to assist their clients. Because psychotherapy deals with a multitude of mental health disorders, it is important that psychotherapists have in-depth knowledge and developed expertise. Counselors typically complete certificates that grant them their certification.

Counseling or psychotherapy: Which approach do you need?

From a clinician's point of view, if you choose to brand yourself as a counselor, you must make sure that you have an authorized counselor certification of some sort, and that you are interested in helping clients with general life issues. However, if you're interested in uncovering the deeper fundamentals of mental health, then perhaps psychotherapy is the pathway that you should consider. Remember that you cannot practice as a psychotherapist unless you have the relevant qualifications in mind. If you are unsure check with your state regulations and psychotherapy board, as lying about mental health qualifications can result in hefty fines, and in the worst case; prison. 

From a client's point of view, if you feel that you would like additional support in dealing with a current life stressor, then perhaps consider counseling. On the other hand, if you are dealing with moderate to severe mental health issues that are impacting your day-to-day life, then trying out a psychotherapist is also a viable route. There’s no harm in having consultations with your local counselors and psychotherapist to work out which pathway is best suited to your needs. 

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this guide has solidified your knowledge when it comes to the differences and nuances between counseling and psychotherapy. Acknowledging the right terminology is a really important skill and an asset to have in healthcare, as it can minimize confusion, as well as increase communication across your practice. Not only this, but you can comply with healthcare standards and regulations, and brand yourself under the correct umbrella for higher growth. We hope that you now have a greater understanding of different professions under mental health care, and we look forward to seeing this represented within your client experiences.

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