Share on Pinterest
Maskot/Getty Images

The terms “counselor” and “therapist” are often used interchangeably. But these two types of professionals aren’t technically the same.

While both may suggest psychotherapy, counseling isn’t always a regulated practice like therapy is.

Overall, both counselors and therapists help clients work through their mental health and life challenges. The key differences between the two are:

  • education
  • training
  • licenses
  • treatment plans

Depending on the type of treatment you’re seeking, these differences can have a significant impact on your overall experience and goal outcomes. It’s also important to seek a professional who’s licensed and regulated in your state.

Learn more about the key differences between counselors and therapists to help clarify your search for the right treatment program.

“Counselors” and “therapists” are umbrella terms that often refer to mental health professionals who offer counseling or therapy. It’s not uncommon to refer to counseling treatments as therapy and vice-versa.

While using these terms interchangeably may seem harmless, it can help you to know the different treatments each type of mental health professional specializes in.

You may also notice a counselor and therapist sometimes work to treat similar issues with different approaches or even similar treatment plans.

But the differences aren’t always so clear-cut.

For example, some counseling psychologists with doctorate level education do therapy. At the same time, psychotherapists may advertise counseling services. In either case, any professional that advertises psychotherapy must be licensed.

But not all counselors necessarily have advanced education or licenses to practice psychotherapy.

For example, life coaches may counsel their clients but don’t possess the qualifications necessary to practice mental health therapy the way a licensed therapist or psychologist does. Such practices may also be unregulated by a professional licensing board.

Many people and even clinicians themselves often use “counseling” and “therapy” interchangeably — in other words, psychologists do both counseling and therapy. Counselors might also do therapy. Therapists might counsel.

When assessing the difference between the two for your own mental health treatment, what’s important is finding the appropriate professional that provides services that support your individual needs.

Counseling treatments

A licensed or certified counselor may help treat the following:

Typically, a counselor focuses on present day problems that may be affecting your overall mental health and well-being.

Their treatments may not go as deeply into how issues from previous relationships, past experiences, or deep-seated trauma may have contributed to your current mental health state.

A psychotherapist may also provide counseling to their clients. Nevertheless, this type of professional must be licensed in order to practice psychotherapy. This indicates that they have the proper credentials, as well as oversight from a state licensing board.

Therapy treatments

Like counselors, therapists focus on treatments that can benefit your overall mental health and well-being.

Unlike some counselors, however, therapists must be licensed in the states they practice. They also require more education, usually at a doctorate level.

Therapists also tend to focus on talk therapy. This involves verbalizing your problems to help work through solutions that may also involve changes to your thinking and behaviors.

“Therapist” tends to be an umbrella term for many professionals in the mental health field, so a therapist may also be called a psychologist or psychiatrist. Psychologists use more research-based practices, while a psychiatrist can prescribe medications that work in conjunction with therapies.

Therapists may also focus on human behavior and research to a greater degree than counselors do.

Therapists typically work with more complex issues than counselors, including past experiences and how they influence your current behavior and mental health. But these specializations can overlap significantly.

Both counselors and therapists are trained in their area of specialty. They may also hold licenses or certifications as required by their state.

To practice therapy, a psychotherapist must be licensed in the state they’re in. To obtain such a license, the therapist must take and pass an exam administered by their state. Therapists typically display their diplomas and licenses in their offices.

It’s important to consider such requirements, as well as the educational level of each mental health professional in relation to your treatment needs. A reputable professional will have either a master’s or doctorate level education combined with a license in order to provide their services.

Counselor qualifications

To treat patients in a clinical setting, counselors may have a minimum of a master’s degree in counseling. As part of their education, a counselor will take courses related to their specialty, including therapy techniques.

Depending on state law, reputable counselors may also need licenses to practice counseling services. For example, “LPC” stands for licensed professional counselor.

Additionally, counselors will often obtain certifications, such as those related to addiction and marriage counseling. Keep in mind that some counselors who advertise their services aren’t licensed or regulated, so it’s important to ask in advance.

Counseling psychologists may have doctorate level degrees and specialize in a variety of topics, such as:

  • mental health conditions related to behavior and mood
  • the influence of a person’s home and work environment
  • coping with physical or intellectual disabilities
  • the impact of social justice issues
  • stressors related to decision-making, especially about life events, school, or work
  • adjustment to social life at work, school, or home
  • developing a personal identity

Therapist qualifications

Therapists typically have more education than counselors. Most therapists have at least a master’s degree in psychology. Many obtain doctoral level education.

But there are some PhD-level counseling psychologists who have higher levels of education than master’s level social workers (usually with a MSW degree) who work as therapists.

Psychology itself is the scientific study of human behavior. Therapists also tend to have training that puts research from one or more specialities into practice.

Some therapists may also have a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in psychology. This provides a more in-depth research background. Another educational option is a doctor of psychology (PsyD) which has less of a research emphasis.

In addition to providing therapy services, both types of clinical psychology doctorate degrees allow these professionals to seek jobs in academia at the college or university level.

Other therapists may have master’s or doctoral degrees in other related fields besides psychology, including:

Therapists must also hold appropriate licenses and certifications based on the state they wish to practice in.

Therapists may offer services in their own private practices, but may also work in:

  • group practices
  • schools
  • universities
  • assisted living facilities
  • clinics
  • social services

Therapists can work with individuals in one-on-one sessions as well as with couples, families, and groups. Some also specialize in working with children through a technique called play therapy.

Choosing between a counselor or a therapist depends on your treatment needs.

Here are some tips on how to choose a professional based on what treatment outcomes you’re looking for.

Short vs. long-term treatment

A counselor may be a better choice if you want to resolve more short-term issues that don’t stem from long-term mental health issues.

For example, a marriage counselor can help couples work toward resolving disruptive short-term problems for a healthier relationship.

A therapist, on the other hand, may offer treatments that delve into deeper mental health concerns, including:

  • long-term behavioral issues
  • anger issues
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • trauma
  • addiction

A therapist can also help you discover the underlying causes of these issues, along with negative past experiences that may apply to the situation.

Education and background

Beyond their different treatment areas, you may also consider a prospective mental health professional’s education and background.

For example, if you’re seeking a therapist for depression or family-related issues, you may want to choose a counselor with expertise in this area rather than a therapist who specializes in relationship therapies.

Both qualified counselors and therapists must have a minimum of a master’s degree. Therapists may have more advanced doctoral degrees.

Be wary of any professional who advertises therapy or counseling services but doesn’t possess the necessary education, training, or licensing.

Budget and location

Your budget and location are other considerations.

If you have insurance, you may want to start by calling your insurance company to ask about your mental health coverage and receive a list of in-network professionals to help you lower the cost of your treatment.

If you’re in school, both school and university-level counselors may offer free sessions for students while also having the convenience of offices on campus.

A clinic or community health center may offer options at a reduced cost for therapists and counselors.

Online and remote options

There’s also the option of therapy apps that offer the ability to host online sessions anytime.

These apps typically offer sessions for free or at a lower cost, with many apps only requiring a one-time purchase or monthly subscription fee that may be lower than the cost of regular counseling or therapy sessions.

Both counselors and therapists are treatment-based mental health professionals who can help you work through a variety of issues to achieve a better quality of life.

Keep in mind that, while the terms “counselor” and “therapist” may be discussed interchangeably and do have some overlap, there are still key differences between these two professionals.

Also be aware that some counselors may practice without licenses or regulation.

First, narrow your search to a few different professionals and ask for free consultations with each. At this point, you may also inquire about their education and training. You can then continue forward with your preferred counselor or therapist that you feel most comfortable with.

For more complex issues, a therapist may be a better choice because they can help clients work through unresolved experiences. They’re also more likely to hold an advanced degree, training, and licensing.

Also, keep in mind that you may work with more than one counselor or therapist over the course of your treatment.

This may help you access a wide range of specialists who can address every dimension of your desired mental health outcomes.