The terms “counselor” and “therapist” are often used interchangeably. But these two types of professionals aren’t technically the same.
The differences come down to education, training, and licensing standards.
Overall, both counselors and therapists help clients work through their mental health and life challenges. The key differences between the two are:
- degree requirements
- specific kinds of training and supervision
- licenses and certifications
For the most part, the choice is about finding a mental health professional whose services are a good fit with your goals. You’ll also want to choose someone you feel comfortable talking to.
There are also practical considerations like cost, insurance coverage, and how many sessions are needed for a particular treatment approach.
Whether you select a therapist or a counselor, it’s 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.
The terms “counselor” and “therapist” are sometimes used casually to refer to mental health professionals who offer counseling or therapy. Sometimes you might switch between one word or the other, without really thinking about it.
However, in specific terms, “counselor” and “therapist” refer to two separate categories of mental health professionals. Some of their skills and interests may overlap, but their training and licensing are not the same.
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.
When it comes to counselling and therapy, make sure you look for a licensed professional. For example, even though life coaching may resemble talk therapy, it’s not licensed or regulated. Unlike licensed counselors or therapists, life coaches do not have any training requirements or professional standards.
According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, licenced clinical mental health counselors take a holistic approach to mental health. This approach focuses on your overall well-being as a person.
Licenced clinical mental health counselors also take a strengths-based approach. This means that treatments are focused on your unique strengths and abilities.
The American Counseling Association notes that counselling is often goals-focused. You may come to counselling to work on goals for your mental health, overall wellness, or career or education milestones.
Treatment areas include:
- individual, couples, family, and group therapy
- marital or relationship issues
- alcohol or substance use
- struggles with anger or low self-esteem
- loss or grief
- multiple issues, such as PTSD with subtance use
Typically, a counselor focuses on present day problems that may be affecting your overall mental health and well-being. They can assess your mental health and help you work on reducing symptoms and feeling better.
Some believe that counselling 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.
However, different counselors may use different frameworks. If you’re considering working with a counselor, ask them about their approach to counselling. This way, you’ll know what to expect, and can decide if it’s a good fit.
Like counselors, therapists focus on treatments that can benefit your overall mental health and well-being. Therapy sessions can happen:
- one-on-one (individual therapy)
- with your partner or family
- in a group setting
The kinds of conditions treated by therapists are often the same as those treated by counselors. According to the
- grief or loss
- relationship or family issues
- bipolar disorder
- other mental health conditions
Both therapists and counselors may be trained in specialized forms of talk therapy. This involves verbalizing your problems to help work through solutions that may also involve changes to your thinking and behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one option.
The goal of therapy is to relieve your symptoms and help you improve your quality of life. But it’s important to ask a therapist what kinds of techniques and approaches they will use to help. This can help you find the right strategy for your needs.
Some say that therapists focus on human behavior and research to a greater degree than counselors do. But this may have more to do with an individual’s training and approach than with overall differences between the professions.
Certain therapists with higher-level training may work with more complex issues than counselors. But the specializations can overlap significantly.
Counselor and therapist specialties
You may notice that therapists and counselors specialize in similar treatment areas, including:
- child and adolescent therapies
- therapies for individuals, groups, couples, or families
- behavioral therapies
- substance use treatment
- support for anxiety or depression
- therapy for loss or grief
Both counselors and therapists are trained in their area of specialty. They 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.
The process for counselors is typically similar. To work as a professional counselor, state licensing is also required. All states require counselors to pass an exam before they can receive a license.
You can ask a therapist or counselor about what kind of license they hold.
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.
To treat patients in a clinical setting, counselors have a minimum of a master’s degree in counselling. As part of their education, a counselor will take courses related to their specialty, including therapy techniques.
Counselors also have to gain a certain amount of experience before they can be licensed. This practical training happens under the supervision and guidance of a more senior counselor. Usually, a counselor needs to do 2,000 to 3,000 hours of supervised experience before they qualify for licensing.
During the supervision period, a counselor can typically offer mental health services. But they won’t have their full license yet.
Both counselors and therapists may choose to pursue additional certifications, such as those related to addiction or marriage counseling.
You might have come across the term “counseling psychologist.” This is a different type of professional who can offer mental health services. Counseling psychologists have doctorate level degrees in psychology. They are licensed as psychologists, not counselors.
Therapists are required to have a master’s degree in a subject relevant to psychotherapy. These degrees include:
- Master of Social Work (MSW)
- Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy
- Master of Arts in Psychology
- Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology
Some therapists also obtain doctoral level education.
Like counselors, therapists also need to gain experience before they can qualify for a licence. During this time, a trainee therapist will be supervised and receive guidance on developing their skills.
For Marriage and Family Therapists, the period of supervision is usually about two years long. Therapists with a MSW degree will typically have 2 to 3 years of supervised experience before qualifying for licensing. If you’re thinking of working with a therapist, feel free to ask them about their specific education and training.
Therapists can usually offer services while they’re in the supervision period. After the supervision period is successfully completed, therapists need to pass a licensing exam in their state.
Some psychologists or psychiatrists who offer therapy may refer to themselves as therapists. But becoming a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist requires different education and training. Psychologists need a doctoral degree such as a PhD or PsyD. Psychiatrists attend medical school to earn a MD or DO degree, and often have additional training in mental health topics.
Choosing between a counselor or a therapist depends on your treatment needs.
Therapists as well as counselors may offer services in their own private practices. But these professionals may also work in:
- group practices
- assisted living facilities
- social services
Therapists and counselors 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.
Here are some tips on how to choose a professional based on what treatment outcomes you’re looking for.
Looking for ways to support your mental health and well-being? Try Healthline’s FindCare tool to connect with mental health professionals nearby or virtually so you can get the care you need.
Short vs. long-term treatment
You might be seeking help to deal with short-term concerns that don’t stem from a long-term mental health condition. Or, you might be looking for treatments that can delve into a long-standing situation such as:
- anger issues
For example, a marriage counselor or therapist can help couples work toward resolving disruptive short-term problems for a healthier relationship.
In the longer term, one of these professionals can also help you discover the underlying causes of these issues, along with negative past experiences that may apply to the situation.
Making the decision depends on:
- your goals
- your clinician’s approach
- the cost of therapy and the time available to devote to it
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 help for depression or family-related issues, you may want to choose a professional with expertise in this area rather than one who specializes in couples therapy.
Finding a professional who understands where you’re coming from can help make mental health treatment feel more comfortable. For example, some therapists or counselors have training or experience to specialize in working with:
- people with certain life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
- people of color
- people with diverse sexual and gender identities
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 mental health services 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.
Need a diagnosis?
It’s important to note that, while many counselors and therapists are trained to help assess and treat issues related to mental health, most don’t make formal diagnoses.
If you’re seeking a mental health diagnosis, you may consider seeing a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.
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 some differences between these two professionals in terms of how they are trained and licensed.
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.
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.