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Psychotherapy vs Counseling: Understanding Mental Health Terminology

January 31, 2017

Female therapist writing notes while older male patient lying on couch speaks and gestures.

Some of the most common terms for treatment and occupations in mental health can be confusing. Many of these words are interchangeable and can vary in connotation from person to person. The following sections help clarify what certain terms, such as psychotherapy and counseling, mean.

Psychotherapy vs Counseling

Psychotherapy and counseling both use psychological methods to help clients with a mental or emotional problem or disorder.

Some people make a small distinction between the two terms: “Counseling” is a brief treatment that targets a specific symptom or situation, while “psychotherapy” is a longer-term treatment that attempts to gain more insight into someone’s problems. However, many people use the terms interchangeably.

One caveat is that “counseling” can be used in other contexts. For instance, someone may receive career counseling or a couple may receive premarital counseling, which changes the meaning of the term. In the context of mental health, however, “counseling” often refers to “psychotherapy” or “therapy.”


Psychiatrist vs Psychologist vs Therapist

Three occupations represent some of the most common careers in mental health.

  • Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are physicians who diagnose, treat and help prevent disorders related to the brain. They can evaluate a patient’s health, make a diagnosis and design a treatment plan. Psychiatrists can prescribe a wide range of drugs and recommend inpatient hospitalization or outpatient treatment. To become a psychiatrist, candidates need to complete four years of medical school after receiving a bachelor’s degree. Then they complete a residency program in psychiatry and pursue board certification in the specialty.
  • Psychologist: Psychologists study behavior and cognitive, emotional and social processes. They can conduct research, administer tests and perform psychotherapy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) identifies many types of psychologists, such as clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, school psychologists and social psychologists. Psychologists typically need a doctoral degree in psychology, as well as state licensure to practice.
  • Therapist: Therapists help clients with mental or emotional problems or disorders. They accomplish this through the related terms of counseling, therapy and psychotherapy. The BLS uses “mental health counselors” and “marriage and family therapists” to identify this category of mental health providers. Many therapists’ work is guided by major mental health counseling theories. A master’s degree in psychology, clinical mental health counseling or a related field is needed for entry into this career, as well as state licensure.

All three mental health professionals can provide therapy. In most cases, psychiatrists are performing therapy less often than in previous eras. Instead, appointments typically consist of brief consultations with patients and medication management; psychiatrists may refer patients to psychologists or therapists for talk therapy (or psychotherapy), according to The New York Times.

Psychologists generally have greater scope of practice than therapists or mental health counselors. The additional training that psychologists receive (most have a Ph.D. or Psy.D.) enables them to perform more tests, including personality, performance, aptitude, intelligence and other types of psychological tests. Therapists or mental health counselors are more limited in the tests they can administer, but they have the knowledge and skills to provide high-quality talk therapy.

Becoming a Counselor

Employment of mental health counselors is projected to grow 19 percent by 2024, according to the BLS. This is much faster than the average for all professions. The number of people who have mental health counseling services covered by their insurance, as well as the number of military veterans needing and seeking mental health treatment, is expected to increase the need for mental health counselors.

Grace College’s online M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling prepares graduates for work in counseling environments. This faith-based program analyzes major mental health theories and strategies through a biblical lens. The curriculum helps teach students how to apply Scriptural truth and principles in practice.

A majority of coursework takes place in a fully online format. Students attend an annual seven- to 10-day residency on campus in scenic Winona Lake, Indiana. The program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).