Psychologist vs. Counselor Differences

If you are considering a career in psychology, you may find the varying titles in the field confusing. There are several common terms thrown around including counselor, therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist and more. Not only that, but there are different subgroups of the field as well. The most important differences are found between psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors. While each of these professions will have some overlap, there are some distinct differences.

As most people know, the psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in the field and able to dispense medication, and although he or she does work one-on-one with patients, these are not counseling sessions. A person may utilize the services of a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and sometimes a counselor, as well. Typically, a person is referred to a psychiatrist to help them address specific psychiatric symptoms that often require medication, such as mood stabilizers or anti-psychotics.

What Does A Psychologist Do?

A clinical psychologist will have a Ph.D. in psychology or a Psy.D and may work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, agencies, schools and private practice. The psychologist may provide psychotherapy services to clients, and will often work in conjunction with a psychiatrist to provide the patient or client care. One important difference between a psychologist and a counselor lies in their role in diagnosis.

Psychologists evaluate and diagnose patients through observation and the administration of tests and other assessments and create treatment plans for their care. They often specialize in specific areas of mental health. For example, some psychologists specialize in treating clients with severe, chronic mental illness. They may do this within a private practice or they may do this working in a facility, such as a psychiatric hospital. Often, psychologists spend a good deal of their time assessing and diagnosing patients. A client may be referred to a psychologist for the specific purpose of diagnosing that client. He or she may spend time evaluating and assessing the individual and then make a diagnosis. At this point, the psychologist will make referrals and recommendations for care and further treatment.

Not all psychologists work specifically in the realm of mental illness diagnosis and treatment. A psychologist may work in a school setting or may have a private practice and provide psychotherapy services to clients, much in the way a counselor does.

What Does A Counselor Do?

A counselor is somewhat of a general term and may include any of the following: Marriage and family therapist, social worker, psychologist,  or an addiction specialist. A counselor will generally have an advanced degree, as is the case with a social worker or marriage and family therapist, however, there are many types of counselors that do not have a master’s degree or Ph.D. Some examples include:

  • Addiction counselors
  • Residential counselors at inpatient rehabilitation facilities
  • Personal development coaches
  • Career counselors

Counselors often work privately or as part of a larger agency. They generally engage in “talk therapy” and clients seek them out to help them get through life challenges or to address specific issues that they may be having. Counselors may use some of the following therapies to help their clients:

  • Cognitive and behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Humanistic therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Holistic psychotherapy
  • Anger management

Why Do People Seek Out Counselors?

There are many reasons why a person seeks out counseling. Although people often equate therapy with severe mental health issues or crisis, people often seek counseling to help them with everyday issues and to improve their quality of life. Some examples include:

  • Learning to communicate better in personal and professional relationships
  • Learning better coping skills in relation to stress and anger
  • Navigating issues of boundaries and codependency
  • Adopting better self-care habits
  • Letting go of trust issues
  • Dealing with divorce, death, low self-esteem and low self-worth

Counselors are also sought out to help children who are struggling with family changes or other issues, although they may be referred to a psychologist if it is suspected that they have more severe behavioral or mental health issues.

Psychologist vs. Counselor: Addressing Mental Illness

While there is often overlap in the services provided, there are some other differences in the type of care that an individual receives from a psychologist vs. a counselor. For example, a patient may first be referred to a psychologist to determine the cause of symptoms. He or she may work with the psychologist for a period of time while the psychologist makes a diagnosis and determines the proper course of treatment. The patient may also receive the services of a psychiatrist if it is determined that he or she needs medication. The psychologist may then refer the patient to a counselor for ongoing therapy to help them better cope with and manage their mental illness. Counselors do not generally diagnose a mental illness. Instead, if they suspect their client is struggling with OCD, Bipolar disorder or severe, clinical depression, for example, the counselor would refer their client to a clinical psychologist to be assessed and diagnosed.

Psychologists and counselors often specialize in their field. A marriage and family therapist may exclusively work with couples, or may only work with children. Likewise, a psychologist may work exclusively with those suffering from specific mental illness such as schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder.

Counselors help people come up with solutions to problems they are having in their daily life. Communication difficulties, problems with fear and anxiety, trust or even procrastination are all areas that a counselor can help with. People turn to counselors to help them get through difficult events in their lives, such as the death of a loved one or divorce.

Key Differences To Remember

Schooling is a key difference. A clinical psychologist will have completed a doctorate, while a counselor typically earns a master’s degree. Psychologists will diagnose and treat mental illness and disorders, while a counselor leans more toward supporting an individual and helping them cope with challenges in their lives, including mental illness.

Psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists often work together to help people and they can often be found working together in an agency or practice in order to provide comprehensive mental health services to clients and patients.