What Is the Difference Between Therapy and Counseling?

Updated May 18, 2023 | Tessa Cooper

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What Is the Difference Between Therapy and Counseling?

Mental health professionals provide relief and support to people dealing with short-term and long-term challenges. Many people use the terms therapy and counseling interchangeably. However, there is a difference between therapy and counseling.

When thinking of counseling vs. therapy, know that therapy is more of a long-term commitment. It helps people dealing with long-term mental health conditions like depression. Counseling offers support for a short time and often focuses on 1-2 issues.

Counselors and therapists need similar skill sets to serve clients well. They need strong listening and record-keeping skills. They must also empathize with their clients and validate their feelings.

This guide explores how career paths and treatments differ in counseling vs. therapy.

Questions About Counseling and Therapy

Do Therapists Make More Money than Counselors?

These professionals earn similar incomes. Mental health counselors earn a median $48,520 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Family therapists earn $49,880.

What Counseling Types Are There?

Common counseling types include rehabilitation, substance abuse, and couples counseling. Aspiring counselors can choose a minor or concentration in one of these subjects to form a niche.

What Are the Most Common Therapy Types?

People often pursue therapy for anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Common therapy treatments include talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychoanalysis therapy.

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What Is a Counselor?

A counselor is a mental health practitioner who evaluates a client's current situation and offers actionable suggestions for improvement. Counselors may specialize in 1-2 topics. Some counselors focus solely on couples and family counseling. Others provide trauma or grief counseling to help people process emotions and memories from specific events. They collaborate with clients to set goals, evaluate progress, and form treatment plans.

Many counselors work in private practice. Others work at outpatient centers or hospitals. Schools and universities also hire counselors. These professionals help students overcome learning barriers. They also provide career counseling services to students.

What Is a Therapist?

A therapist is a mental health professional who usually works with clients for several years. They form observations and conduct psychoanalysis of their clients. These professionals apply theories and assign specific treatments. Therapists need training to conduct specific treatments. They usually specialize in 1-2 treatment types.

Just like counselors, therapists typically serve a niche audience. They may specialize in couples or family therapy. Some therapists focus on individual therapy for mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder or seasonal affective disorder.

Therapists usually work in similar places as counselors. According to the BLS, 15% of therapists are self-employed.

Counseling vs. Therapy Treatments

Therapists form deeper connections with their clients and aim to determine the reasons behind thought patterns and feelings. Counselors strive to use their short time with clients effectively. They offer strategies and healthy coping suggestions.

See below to learn how treatments differ in counseling vs. therapy.

What Do Counselors Treat?

Counselors treat specific behaviors and challenges clients face. They offer suggestions on practical steps to take. For example, they may help clients facing substance abuse form a plan for when they feel tempted to engage in the addictive behavior. Or, they may help clients learn how to communicate boundaries.

People commonly see counselors for issues like drug addiction, grief, or general guidance. Counselors who work in academia usually help students navigate the admissions process or explore careers.

Counselors rarely treat severe mental health issues like schizophrenia. They cannot prescribe medications for mental health conditions. Instead, counselors focus on action-based approaches for people who live independently.

What Do Therapists Treat?

Therapists typically treat more ongoing mental health issues and situations. For example, they may help people who experience ongoing and severe anxiety and depression. Or, they may provide infrequent, but long-term sessions for couples who want to maintain healthy relationships.

Common types of therapy treatments include cognitive-behavioral, talk, and dialectical behavior therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy encourages patients to examine their thoughts and determine the validity of them. This method teaches clients how to transform negative and irrational thoughts into positive and rational ones.

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, encourages clients to identify unconscious thoughts and realize how these notions impact their lives. Dialectical behavioral therapy combines elements of cognitive-behavioral and talk therapy.

Just like counselors, therapists cannot prescribe medications. They refer their clients to psychiatrists for this purpose.

Counseling vs. Therapy Education

Counselors and therapists usually need at least a master's degree and a state license to practice independently. Here, we explain the typical education requirements for counseling vs. therapy. Keep in mind each state sets its own education requirements for licensing purposes.

What Are the Educational Requirements for Counseling?

Not every practicing counselor holds a license. For example, school counselors may only hold a bachelor's degree. However, most counselors complete supervised experience to at least meet certification requirements.

Counselors can choose a specialization during their studies. Some options include adolescent counseling or substance abuse counseling. Most full-time learners take four years to complete a bachelor's program in counseling. A master's takes about two years.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) provides state-specific information on education requirements for counseling. This organization also provides the certification and licensure exams for counselors. Learners can find study guides and practice quizzes on the organization's website.

What Are the Educational Requirements for Therapy?

Therapists need a master's degree in a subject like psychology, therapy, or mental health. Aspiring therapists should look for an undergraduate program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education. The Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council accredits graduate programs. Full-time learners can finish their degrees within six years.

During their studies, aspiring therapists learn how to facilitate individual and group therapy sessions. They also gain supervised clinical experience.

Therapists can choose a specialization. Earning a therapy degree with a minor in family therapy may prepare learners to succeed on their Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) exams.

Counseling vs. Therapy Licensure

Mental health counselors and therapists who want to practice independently need a license. State licensing requirements vary by state. However, states typically require 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised experience for licensure.

Counselors and therapists who want to switch their practice to a new state may need to complete additional requirements. Some states participate in reciprocity agreements, allowing these professionals to easily transfer their licenses. Telehealth therapists and counselors usually hold licensure to serve clients in multiple states.

Many organizations offer licensure exams, including the NBCC, the AMFTRB, and the American Counseling Association. These organizations also provide study materials and practice exams.

Most counseling and therapy certifications and licenses require periodic renewal. Professionals must obtain continuing education (CE) hours to qualify for renewal. Professional organizations typically offer virtual CE opportunities.

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