Counselor Vs Psychologist: Which Do You Need?

By Marie Miguel

Updated April 11, 2019

Reviewer Carnell Colebrook-Claude , MA, NCC, BC-TMH, LPC (Clinical Track), LPCC, LCPC, LIMHP, LSOTP

Struggling with mental or emotional health issues and wondering who to go to for help? In this article we'll explain the differences between a counselor versus a psychologist and for which situations you may seek treatment from one over the other.


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Unless you're in a mental health profession, you may find yourself using words like counselor and psychologist interchangeably. After all, on the surface they appear to do the same thing: help people who suffer from mental or emotional issues work through personal problems and live a healthier life. However, these two professions do actually have some differences that are worth noting for those considering using either of their services.

When it comes to understanding the differences between a counselor versus a psychologist there are differences in three main areas: level of education, level of specialization and what they are able to legally offer for treatment.

Education


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Both counselors and psychologists are licensed to practice within a given state. However, counselors typically have less formal education than their psychologist counterparts. At the highest level, they may have a Master's level education and meet other specific requirements, such as a requisite number of supervised training hours and passing certain examinations.

Overall, though, their education is much more general purpose to prepare them to handle a wide range of patients. Psychologists, on the other hand, will have at least a master's degree and often have Doctoral degrees as well and will have done an extensive amount of in-depth research into human psychology and thousands of hours of supervised training sessions to better help them understand the complexities of mental illnesses and how to treat them.

There are also other differences in the education that counselors and psychologists receive. For instance, most Master's degree programs take two to three years to complete. On the other hand, doctoral programs can take anywhere from four to seven years to complete. Another difference is the type of material that is learned and the clinical experience that is acquired. These differences are further explained below:

  1. Psychologists typically have educational background and practical training in administering and interpreting psychological evaluations; however, most counselors are not trained in this area and are unable to provide psychological testing.
  2. Both counselors and psychologists learn about and are required to practice under a set of ethical guidelines; however, some of the guidelines are different according to the degree level which is obtained.
  3. Psychologists are usually required to participate in more clinical research than counselors. For example, completing a dissertation, which is a lengthy research paper, is required in most doctoral programs.
  4. Counselors will most often gain one to years of clinical experience prior to graduating, while psychologist usually acquires three to four years of clinical experience prior to graduating.

Specialization

Counselors are trained to provide counseling to almost anyone who seeks their services and is typically not focused on one area of treatment. Whether that means they work as a social worker handling familiar disputes or as an online counselor coaching people through chronic anxiety, a counselor's main job is to talk with patients to help them work through their issues on a general level. If someone needs treatment for a specific mental illness, a psychologist may be a better source of help. Because of their advanced education and research, they possess more in-depth knowledge of certain mental health issues and can provide more tailored resources to a given situation.

So, let's break down "specializations" a bit more. According to LearnPsychology.org, the four most common career paths in the field of psychology include that of psychologists, social workers, counselors, and therapists. Within these career paths, there is a substantial amount of specializations to choose from. For instance, there are several "areas of psychology" such as Clinical Psychology, Forensic Psychology, Business Psychology, and Neuropsychology. Both counselors and psychologists are encouraged to choose a specialization, so that they are better able to understand and help others. In addition to the various areas of psychology, there are populations and mental health diagnoses that counselors and psychologists may have more experience working with. These specializations can include: substance abuse, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders, children or adults involved in the criminal justice system, various sexual orientations, and much more.


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Treatment

When it comes to treatment, counselors can do exactly what you'd expect-counsel. That means that are able to meet with patients and provide talk therapy to help return to a healthier mental or emotional state but dependent on the scope of their practice within their specific organization/agency, they may not be able to specifically diagnose a certain disorder. They can be considered as a kind of confidant who is able to give trusted advice. A psychologist is always able to diagnose mental disorders and provide extensive treatment for the specific condition, including prescribing medications in some states. And because psychologists offer much more in-depth treatment for specific mental illnesses, they are held to rigorous confidentiality laws to protect the patient as they divulge personal details about their struggles.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you have decided to see a therapist, whether they are a counselor or a psychologist, you have already taken a huge step on your journey to overall health and happiness. Since many individuals have no idea what to expect from going to therapy - this decision can be a scary one! So, although finding the therapist who is right for you is important, the process of doing so should not be a stressful and tedious process. Below are some additional factors to consider when searching for a counselor or psychologist:

  1. What are my present problems? The answer(s) to this question can help guide your search for the right clinician. If you are aware of your previous or current struggles (e.g., depression, anxiety, or anger), you should search for a clinician who has experience with these diagnoses/issues. Typically, you can get this information by searching online or calling and asking the therapist.
  2. Do I need a diagnosis? Perhaps you are seeking therapy as a result of a court order or because your job requires you to. In many cases, the third-party (e.g., court or work) will require you to receive a diagnosis - even if just for insurance/payment purposes. This is important since, in some states, only psychologists can render diagnoses. Keep this in mind when searching for a clinician.
  3. Is there a need for psychotropic medication? Some individuals can benefit from taking prescribed medication(s) for their mental, emotional, and/or behavioral health, in addition to participating in therapy. If this applies to you, try searching for a clinician who is specialized in providing therapy and is also qualified to prescribe psychotropic medications.
  4. What is the therapist's theoretical orientation? Now, unless you have gone to school for psychology, you may not know what a theoretical orientation is and why it is important. According to the American Psychological Association, "A theory of psychotherapy acts as a roadmap for psychologists: It guides them through the process of understanding clients and their problems and developing solutions." Do not be afraid to ask a therapist "What is your theoretical orientation and how can it help me?"
  5. Do gender and race matter? While someone's gender and/or race does not determine whether they are an effective clinician, these factors may be important to you and your treatment. Thoughtfully consider your level of comfortability with individuals who are demographically similar or different to you.

Before you pursue your search for a mental health professional, we should also debunk a repeated myth. Many may perceive psychologists as being "better than" or "more qualified" when compared to counselors because of their degree level. However, this just is not true! No matter the degree level or the amount of clinical experience one has received, it is expected for counselors and psychologists alike to follow all ethical guidelines and to provide the best level of care to their clients.

Overall, the most important things to consider are 1) what issues you would like addressed in therapy, 2) what type of therapeutic relationship you are interested in, and 3) what therapist best meets your needs.

When it comes to your own mental or emotional issues only you can decide what type of treatment you need to recover. However, if you don't know where to start, connecting with an online counselor at a website like BetterHelp.com can be a great resource that allows you to begin your treatment journey in a convenient, private and more affordable way. While there is no guarantee that a counselor will be able to help you overcome your current struggles, sometimes simply opening to someone can be what it takes to get you on the road to recovery.


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