Counselor Versus Therapist: Is there a Difference?

By Sarah Earles, MS, LPC, NCC | March 29, 2024 

It’s time for counseling. Life has gotten unruly. Relationships have unraveled. Maybe there is substance use or addiction, or maybe just unhealthy coping patterns. The individual wants to process thoughts and feelings and learn new ways to function. But what kind of professional does the person seek out for these counseling services? Is it a counselor a therapist? Or something else? Does the professional’s title even matter?

Counseling can mean different things to different people. In and of itself, the verb counsel means to give or offer advice (Counsel, 2023). As a noun, it means “support…or guidance” (Counseling, 2023). In this general sense, counseling exists in many areas: finances, nutrition, relationships, etc. In the professional sense, however, counseling has a particular meaning. According to the American Counseling Association [ACA] (n.d.), it “is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” As it pertains to mental health, the ACA states that,

“Counseling is a collaborative effort between the counselor and client. Professional counselors help clients identify goals and potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil; seek to improve communication and coping skills; strengthen self-esteem; and promote behavior change and optimal mental health.”

Generally, when individuals struggle with life challenges, they want professional counseling. A variety of professionals offer this service.

Mental health professionals are those that have pursued advanced training to assist individuals with specific needs. Types of mental health professionals include psychologists, social workers, licensed professional counselors, licensed substance abuse counselors, and marriage and family therapists (Mental Health America, n.d.). Other mental health professionals that may provide services but may not be licensed to provide professional counseling are peer support specialists, social workers, and pastoral counselors (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020). Licensure matters more than title. Licensure is important because it sets a standard of care and clinician competence and helps protect the public (Multi-Discipline Licensure Resource Project, n.d.). For best standard of care, it behooves a person seeking counseling to seek a professional with not a title, but a license to practice.

Is there a difference between counselors and therapists, though? In practice, no. Professionals licensed to practice counseling may call themselves by either title (Joubert, 2021). Some state that counseling is short term, while therapy is long term, but the relationship and the service are the same: a collaboration between a professional and an individual in order to help the individual pursue the goal of healthier functioning (Fagan, 2023; ACA, n.d.). More important than title, is finding a professional that is a good fit with the goals the individual has (Cherny, 2023). Other factors to consider include cost and counseling theory. These are unique to the individual.

Ready for counseling? Just look for a licensed professional. Read about that individual. Request a consultation call. Ask about theory and fees. See if the professional is a good fit. Professional/client relationship predicts success far better than the titles “counselor” or “therapist.”

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It’s time for counseling. Life has gotten unruly. Relationships have unraveled. Maybe there is substance use or addiction, or maybe just unhealthy coping patterns. The individual wants to process thoughts and feelings and learn new ways to function. But what kind of professional does the person seek out for these counseling services? Is it a counselor a therapist? Or something else? Does the professional’s title even matter?

Counseling can mean different things to different people. In and of itself, the verb counsel means to give or offer advice (Counsel, 2023). As a noun, it means “support…or guidance” (Counseling, 2023). In this general sense, counseling exists in many areas: finances, nutrition, relationships, etc. In the professional sense, however, counseling has a particular meaning. According to the American Counseling Association [ACA] (n.d.), it “is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” As it pertains to mental health, the ACA states that,

“Counseling is a collaborative effort between the counselor and client. Professional counselors help clients identify goals and potential solutions to problems which cause emotional turmoil; seek to improve communication and coping skills; strengthen self-esteem; and promote behavior change and optimal mental health.”

Generally, when individuals struggle with life challenges, they want professional counseling. A variety of professionals offer this service.

Mental health professionals are those that have pursued advanced training to assist individuals with specific needs. Types of mental health professionals include psychologists, social workers, licensed professional counselors, licensed substance abuse counselors, and marriage and family therapists (Mental Health America, n.d.). Other mental health professionals that may provide services but may not be licensed to provide professional counseling are peer support specialists, social workers, and pastoral counselors (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020). Licensure matters more than title. Licensure is important because it sets a standard of care and clinician competence and helps protect the public (Multi-Discipline Licensure Resource Project, n.d.). For best standard of care, it behooves a person seeking counseling to seek a professional with not a title, but a license to practice.

Is there a difference between counselors and therapists, though? In practice, no. Professionals licensed to practice counseling may call themselves by either title (Joubert, 2021). Some state that counseling is short term, while therapy is long term, but the relationship and the service are the same: a collaboration between a professional and an individual in order to help the individual pursue the goal of healthier functioning (Fagan, 2023; ACA, n.d.). More important than title, is finding a professional that is a good fit with the goals the individual has (Cherny, 2023). Other factors to consider include cost and counseling theory. These are unique to the individual.

Ready for counseling? Just look for a licensed professional. Read about that individual. Request a consultation call. Ask about theory and fees. See if the professional is a good fit. Professional/client relationship predicts success far better than the titles “counselor” or “therapist.”

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References

American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.counseling.org/docs/ethics/2014-aca-code-of-ethics.pdf

Brown, E.M., Carlisle, K.L., Burgess, M., Clark, J., & Hutcheon, A. (2022). Adverse and positive childhood experiences of mental health counselor as predictors of compassion satisfaction burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. The Professional Counselor 12(1), 49-54. doi: 10.15241/emb.12.1.49

Drisko, J. (2013).The common factors model: Its place in clinical practice and research. Smith College Studies in social work, 83(4), 398-413. doi: 10.1080/00377317.2013.833435

Hairston, S.(n.d.) Does my therapist like me? (Why it REALLY matters). Open Counseling. https://blog.opencounseling.com/does-my-therapist-like-me/

Smith, K. (n.d.) Does my therapist care about me? Is that what I pay them for? Full Living: A psychotherapy practice. https://fullliving.com/does-my-therapist-care-about-me-is-that-what-i-pay-them-for/

References

American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.counseling.org/docs/ethics/ 2014-aca-code-of-ethics.pdf

Brown, E.M., Carlisle, K.L., Burgess, M., Clark, J., & Hutcheon, A. (2022). Adverse and positive childhood experiences of mental health counselor as predictors of compassion satisfaction burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. The Professional Counselor 12(1), 49-54. doi: 10.15241/emb.12.1.49

Drisko, J. (2013).The common factors model: Its place in clinical practice and research. Smith College Studies in social work, 83(4), 398-413. doi: 10.1080/00377317.2013.833435

Hairston, S.(n.d.) Does my therapist like me? (Why it REALLY matters). Open Counseling. https://blog.opencounseling.com/does-my-therapist-like-me/

Smith, K. (n.d.) Does my therapist care about me? Is that what I pay them for? Full Living: A psychotherapy practice. https://fullliving.com/does-my-therapist-care-about-me-is-that-what-i-pay-them-for/