- Psychologists, therapists, and counselors have different training and approaches.
- A psychologist’s training may delve more deeply into the science, theory, and practice of psychology.
- Counseling tends to be shorter term and goal-oriented, and it addresses concrete, specific life challenges.
- Coaches do not tend to treat mental health disorders.
It can be difficult to find a therapist—let alone parse the different labels, from therapists and counselors to psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and coaches.
Each type of clinician undergoes a different form of training, and each has a slightly different focus and approach to helping their clientele. Understanding a few key differences can help you determine which mental health professional is right for you or your loved one.
But before diving in, it’s worth mentioning that although learning about these distinctions can help inform your decision, you don’t need to be overwhelmed by the information or get bogged down in the weeds; what tends to matter most is the commitment to change and the connection you forge with a therapist. It’s important to find someone with whom you feel comfortable and with whom you can build a working relationship—this is what makes therapy healing and transformative.
The Differences Between Psychologists, Therapists, and Counselors
Psychologists, therapists, and counselors may have different training and approaches, but they all treat mental, emotional, and behavioral health; they all have obtained an advanced degree, hours of training, and licensure.
A psychologist has a doctoral degree, such as a doctorate in philosophy, a Ph.D., or a doctorate in psychology, a Psy.D. A psychologist’s training may delve more deeply into the science, theory, and practice of psychology and human behavior. They may be more likely to treat severe mental illnesses such as psychosis or personality disorders. They can conduct psychological and neuropsychological testing. Outside of a clinical context, a psychologist may also be a researcher in an academic or institutional setting.
According to the American Psychological Association, a psychologist is “an individual who is professionally trained in one or more branches or subfields of psychology. Training is obtained at a university or a school of professional psychology, leading to a doctoral degree in philosophy (PhD), psychology (PsyD), or education (EdD).”
A “therapist” is an overarching term for a clinician who treats mental health concerns. It often applies, and is colloquially used, as a label for each of these three categories. For example, therapists often have a master’s degree, but a psychologist with a doctorate degree may also be called a therapist.
Common degrees for a master’s level therapist include a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, LCSW, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, LMFT. A master’s level therapist’s training may focus primarily on treatment, but they cover theory, development, society, and policy as well.
According to the National Association of Social Workers, clinical social work is “a specialty practice area of social work which focuses on the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, emotional, and other behavioral disturbances.”
Counseling tends to be shorter term, goal-oriented, and it addresses concrete, specific life challenges. By contrast, therapy tends to be longer term, more exploratory and holistic, and it treats mental illness.
Counselors often specialize in a specific area, such as marriage, addiction, grief, or abuse. For example, drug and alcohol counseling is a common form of counseling in which certified individuals help clients recover from alcohol and substance use disorders.
Common degrees for counselors include Licensed Mental Health Counselor, LMHC, and Licensed Professional Counselor, LPC.
According to the American Counseling Association, professional counselors “help people gain personal insights, develop strategies and come up with real solutions to the problems and challenges we all face in every area of life. As trained and credentialed professionals, they accomplish this by getting to know clients, by building safe, positive relationships and suggesting tools and techniques they believe will benefit clients.”
The Difference Between Therapists and Coaches
Therapy and coaching are distinct entities. Therapists can diagnose and treat mental illness, address emotional and behavioral problems, explore the past, and help clients achieve greater happiness and fulfillment.
Coaches do not tend to treat mental health disorders. Rather, they help individuals who are relatively higher functioning to continue growing and accomplish specific goals. Therapy tends to be longer term, while coaching tends to be shorter term, although the length of treatment can vary according to the goals and objectives in either setting.
Therapy involves an advanced degree, training, and licensure. Coaching as a field is unregulated and does not require training or licensure; coaching can be very beneficial but it’s important to find a credible, experienced individual. Additionally, therapy is often covered by insurance, while coaching is not.
The Difference Between Therapists and Psychiatrists
Psychologists, as well as social workers and counselors, can practice talk therapy in all its forms, but they cannot prescribe medication to treat mental illness. A psychiatrist, who is a trained physician, can prescribe medication as can nurse practitioners. (In addition, several states have made narrow exceptions for psychologists who practice in geographic areas where psychiatrists are in short supply.)
Many psychologists refer to themselves as doctors. However, this degree refers to a doctor of philosophy or doctor of psychology, not a doctor of medicine.