Life Coach Vs. Therapist: Which One Is Better For Me?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Both therapy and life coaching often involve a creative process and may be helpful in achieving personal goals. However, it can be challenging to discern the differences between a life coach and a therapist. When deciding between a life coach and a therapist, there are some key differences to be aware of. Exploring life coach and therapist roles and their qualifications in more detail may help you choose the mental health professional or life coach best suited to your needs.

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There’s more than one path to growth

What is a therapist?

A therapist is a licensed provider that can help you with mental health conditions, stress, life challenges, diagnosis, and assessment.

Those living with mental health challenges, such as eating disorders, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and other mental illnesses often benefit from the guidance of a therapist. Licensed therapists can help treat mental health issues and conditions through assessment, diagnosis, and talk therapy. A healthcare professional may also provide direction in setting life goals, finding your potential, and coming up with solutions to life’s challenges. 

Educated with a minimum of a master's degree in psychology or counseling and licensed in the states where they offer services, therapists complete 1,500-6,000 hours of supervised practice before earning licensure. Therapists are bound by legal and ethical codes that govern their conduct.

Licensed therapists can assist you using numerous research-backed methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), cognitive processing therapy, and many more. They may collaborate with clients to develop strength-based objectives, including improving reality testing, reframing, problem-solving, or communication skills. Therapists can also help you discover the roots of relationship problems, familial conflict, and career issues. Some therapists focus on helping clients heal from past trauma or overcome mental health challenges.

Generally speaking, therapy involves helping you improve your overall mental and emotional health. While they typically do not have a doctorate degree and thus cannot prescribe medication, therapists diagnose when needed and often coordinate with doctors and other healthcare professionals to provide referrals when necessary. 

What is a life coach?

life coach is a person who offers life coaching services. Generally speaking, one focuses on helping clients achieve personal growth and self-improvement. Coaching services can sometimes be beneficial for those who would like guidance and positive change in a particular area of life.

Life coaching is an unregulated profession, making it challenging for clients to properly vet them. There are no state licensing boards or universally accepted standards of education or training for them. 

While healthy training programs may exist, these programs often require fees and twelve months or more of study. The expense and extended learning times associated with a training program make certification unattainable for many who want to become one. As a result, some people skip coach specific training and market themselves as this way to begin coaching clients. 

An ethical life coach will not work with mental health problems if they arise. Instead, they may refer you to a trained mental health counselor. Still, these professionals can help you with coaching around your present feelings, thoughts, and behaviors to improve performance, develop your potential, help you with solutions, provide direction, and assist you with goal setting. A good coach may also help you with managing stress and improving relationship issues. Often, coaching sessions focus on one specific area of concern such as professional goals, bettering relationships, physical health, or mental fitness. 

However, a licensed counselor, social worker, or therapist is more qualified to support you if you seek mental health treatment. 

Vetting the professional

Both can help you work toward your goals; but the success of each is often dependent, at least in part, on the professional coaches or therapists providing the services. Whether you choose one or the other, ensure they are qualified, meet your needs, and offer a price point within your budget

Vetting a counselor 

Therapists are mental health professionals who will often have a psychology or counseling degree and a license issued by their state. You can verify a therapist's license with your state's licensing board. You can also talk with any potential therapist to inquire about their educational background, professional expertise, issues they work with, and special training or certifications they may have. You may also be able to read reviews and comments left by past and present clients to learn more about their approach and client experiences.

Licensed therapists focus on mental health challenges by assessing your overall mental health. They may help you explore past trauma and develop a treatment plan with subsequent sessions designed to teach you coping skills. 

Only a therapist can treat mental health conditions. Therapy helps you to learn how to manage symptoms of anxiety or depression, among other mental health conditions. However, you do not need to have a mental health condition to see a counselor. They can also offer life advice, guidance, and goal-setting support. 

Vetting a life coach 

Vetting life coaches on your own could be more challenging because they may not have certification or training in giving advice. However, many coaches are licensed through various organizations; for example, those who provide career coaching can obtain the Certified Professional Career Coach designation. You can inquire about or research one's educational background by doing an online search or speaking with them directly. However, you may be unable to verify that what they tell you is accurate. Coaches work to help clients reach goals and manage stress and other problems in daily life, but they are not qualified to treat mental health conditions, which is the main difference.

Life coach vs. Therapist: Pricing differences

Pricing can differ between the two. Therapists often charge by the hour, and Forbes states the average in-person therapy appointment will cost $100-$200 within the US. Some people may attend sessions once or twice each month, while others attend sessions once or more each week, depending on the issue and the severity. Your health plan might also cover therapists if you have a referral from your healthcare provider or are covered for mental health services. 

Online therapy may be beneficial when it comes to cost concerns. With many online therapy providers, mental health care services can include live sessions via phone, video, or chat in addition to messages between sessions. Before meeting with a counselor, learn more about their pay structure, including any cancellation or late fees they might charge. 

Health insurance considerations

Insurance plans don't cover life coaches because they are unregulated and not qualified to treat mental health or other health conditions. 

You may regularly meet with a life coach at an office as you would with a therapist, and the life coach might charge by the hour or amount of time spent with them. Often, coaches cost more than therapists. Before you start working with one, it can be helpful to understand what services they provide and how they charge for those services. 

Which should I choose? 

Weighing the differences between the two can be challenging. Both can provide specific benefits, and your decision will often depend on your goals, concerns (e.g., a mental health condition, career challenges), and preferences. Therapists provide a health service and are trained to do so, but they may also provide the same services. Therapists are often trained to use proven modalities (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy) to address mental health concerns. Therapy often helps clients living with a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or chronic stress. It isn't necessary to have a mental health challenge to talk with a licensed therapist though. 

There’s more than one path to growth

Counseling options 

Reaching out to an in-person therapist may be challenging. Some individuals might feel the urge to reach out to a life coach because of their remote service options. In these cases, online therapy may provide a feasible alternative. This type of therapy can also be more flexible, as you can make appointments whenever your schedule allows. Research has also confirmed that online therapy can be effective for people experiencing various mental health conditions. For instance, a recent study found an online therapy program—which utilized principles from cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy— beneficial for those with depression and anxiety. 

If you're interested in trying life counseling services, you can consider signing up for an online platform like BetterHelp, which matches you with one of 30,000 providers. You can also choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions and receive worksheets, resources, and webinar options.

Takeaway

Choosing between a therapist or a life coach can feel tricky. If you're unsure, consider researching what each provider offers and the cost of their services. Depending on your goals, history, and areas of concern, both life coaching and therapy can be helpful. But, For those with mental health concerns, therapy may be the best option to consider. Often, online therapy can be a rewarding alternative to life coaching, as it offers a remote format and can be offered at affordable rates. If you're interested in getting started, reach out to a therapist to learn more about what they provide and receive further guidance.
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