If you are considering a career as a mental health professional, it can be exciting (and potentially overwhelming) to learn of the many job titles and career paths available to pursue. While the variety of jobs increases your chances of aligning your career and interests, understanding the differences among available roles can make choosing the “right” path a daunting task.
Three of the most common job titles in the mental health industry are counselor, therapist, and psychologist. But what is the difference between these job titles? Are counselors, therapists, and psychologists really that different from one another, or are they more similar than different?
While there is overlap between these three careers, there are specific differences which you should understand before embarking on a career in the field. Here, we explore those differences.
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What is a counselor?
The term counselor is used to broadly refer to a professional trained in the fields of psychology, counseling, social work, or a range of medical fields such as nursing. Mental health counselors, specifically, are those professionals working in a mental health capacity.
Mental health counselors perform many functions and responsibilities. Their duties include conducting patient evaluations, providing education and informational resources to their clients, and making suggestions that the client or patient can use to solve the problem they are seeking counseling to address. Often, mental health counselors will specialize in addressing a particular issue, such as substance abuse, sexual abuse, marriage and relationships, or family counseling, among others.
What is a therapist?
A therapist is an individual that has been professionally trained to provide some form of therapy to a patient or client that addresses either mental or physical disorder. Examples of therapy used in the context of physical medicine can include physical therapists and occupational therapists. In the context of mental health, the terms mental health therapist and psychotherapist are common.
As with counselors, therapists will often specialize in addressing particular client issues, such as marriage and family issues, substance abuse, etc.
The Difference Between Therapists and Counselors
If the two definitions above sound very similar, it’s because they are. Mental health counselors and therapists occupy the same professional space, treating the same issues within the same patient populations. Even within the industry, you can find the terms used interchangeably in some contexts.
However, the key difference between counselors and therapists lies in the approach to treatment that they take.
As a practice, counseling often addresses specific problems, challenges, or behaviors in a patient’s life in a very practical way. A counselor working with a patient who suffers from anxiety might, for example, provide the patient with different tactics that they can use to ward off a pending panic attack. Or they might give an alcoholic patient a set series of steps to follow when they feel a craving coming on. In this regard, there is a certain problem-solving approach inherent in counseling.
Therapists work to help their patients address similar issues, and often provide the same advice that counselors might. However, a key difference is that therapists often seek to go deeper by helping the patient understand the how and why behind a challenge. For example, what scenarios tend to bring on an alcoholic craving and why; what situations are more likely to trigger a panic attack and why? What is the root of these issues? They seek to identify the source of these issues through a combination of talk therapy and other frameworks.
As such, counseling is often (though not always) a short-term approach, arming the patient with tools they can put into action immediately to begin living a more healthy life. Therapy, on the other hand, is often a longer-term process that can last months or even years as the therapist and client seek out the root of the issues being addressed to make lasting change.
Despite these differences, there is significant overlap between therapists and counselors, and they will often borrow from each other’s playbook. Additionally, both therapists and counselors will typically be master’s level clinicians licensed by the state in which they practice. A Master of Science in Counseling Psychology is a commonly held degree, and common licenses include Licenced Mental Health Counselors (LHMCs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs). Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) may also hold the title of counselor or therapist.
What is a psychologist?
Another common job title within mental health counseling is that of a psychologist. Whereas therapists and counselors may be considered more alike than different, the difference is more pronounced for psychologists.
A psychologist is similar to mental health counselors and therapists in that they also work to improve their patients’ mental and emotional health. The techniques and frameworks that they use tend to differ, however. Additionally, psychologists are more likely than counselors to treat patients with severe mental disorders. With this in mind, becoming a counseling psychologist will typically require a higher level of education, such as earning a PhD in Counseling Psychology.
Choosing The Right Career For Your Future
If you’re considering entering the mental health field, it’s important to understand the various available job functions so you can choose a career path that aligns with your interests and goals. While there are many different variations of the titles discussed above, the most common will be counselor, therapist, and psychologist. Though these are related in many ways, the differences are also significant and can substantially change the trajectory of your career.
Jumpstart your career today by learning more about the skills and experience needed to succeed in counseling psychology.
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1. They actually listen to you.
Listening has to be the easiest part of a therapist’s job, right? Not quite. Listening is a multifaceted skill that involves much more than merely waiting passively while someone else speaks.
A good therapist signals that they’re not only taking in your words, but also understanding them.
Feeling like your therapist is distracted when you speak — by the time on the clock, their grocery list, or something else — is a sign that maybe it’s time to see someone new.
What listening looks like
They should provide nonverbal signs of listening, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and posture, as well as verbal ones.
For instance, you might hear your therapist summarize or reflect on what you’ve said or ask for clarification.
Your therapist should validate your thoughts, emotions, actions, and experiences. This doesn’t mean they agree with everything you say or do. In fact, there’s an important difference between validation and approval.
Validation is about acknowledgement and acceptance. A therapist who makes you feel validated acknowledges what you tell them as the truth of your experience.
Approval — along with its opposite, disapproval — is a value judgement. A good therapist tries to avoid making value judgements about what you think, say, or do.
3. They want what’s best for you.
A good therapist is there to offer resources and recommendations while also respecting your agency. You should never feel like your therapist is forcing you to do something you don’t want to do.
This includes choices you make about your own treatment, such as seeing another type of professional or putting therapy on pause for a few weeks. A professional therapist will accept your decision, even when it might not serve them personally.
4. They’re a strong communicator.
Strong communicators listen more than they speak. But while listening is a significant part of a therapist’s job, it shouldn’t come at the expense of speaking skills.
A therapist is also an educator, and as such, they should be able to distill concepts and explain symptoms in a way that you’re able to understand. Although most therapists have undergone years of schooling, their language should be accessible as opposed to scientific.
What’s more, a good therapist will ask you questions to ensure you’ve understood and take the time to rephrase their explanation if you haven’t.
5. They check in with you.
Navigating the therapist-client relationship might be new to you. You might find it uncomfortable broaching certain subjects with your therapist, such as feeling unsatisfied with how your treatment is progressing.
As a trained professional, your therapist should be more comfortable instigating these check-ins. They should take the time to regularly ask you how you think your treatment is going and adapt accordingly.
Sometimes, though, you simply might not be a good fit for each other. A good therapist will encourage you to speak up when it’s not working. They might even provide you with a referral to a colleague who’s a better fit.
6. They take the time to educate themselves.
While your therapist might be an expert in certain areas of human psychology, that doesn’t mean they know everything. Depending on how long they’ve practiced and how specialized they are, some of what you bring to the table might be new to them. That’s perfectly normal.
Your therapist should openly admit it when they don’t know something. They can, however, do their best to learn more by diving into the scientific literature, attending seminars and conferences, and conferring with colleagues.
A committed therapist is continuously increasing their knowledge.
7. You view them as an ally.
Your therapist isn’t your best friend, guru, or boss. Although a therapist can guide you towards what you are seeking, their role isn’t to tell you what to do and how to do it.
A good therapist acts as an ally. From your very first session together, they’ll work to forge a bond with you that’s based on mutual trust. This is known as a therapeutic alliance.
8. They earn your trust.
Speaking of trust, it’s one of the most important — if not the most important — ingredient in your relationship with your therapist. A 2019 study describes trust as vital to working through the challenges that arise between psychotherapists and clients.
How can you know when your therapist has earned your trust?
Trust is feeling safe and supported, like you can say anything to them without fear of judgment. You should know whether you trust them after one or two sessions, and if you don’t, it might not be worth sticking around to find out if they’ll eventually build your trust.
9. You notice a change in yourself.
Change, especially meaningful change, takes time. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), treatment length can depend on the person and the conditions they have.
Some types of therapy take longer than others. For example, talk therapy has a broader focus and therefore often extends for a longer period of time than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on achieving specific goals.
With that said, you should notice the effects of therapy within a month or so of starting treatment. These will be small, especially at first.
According to the APA, for half of the people who seek therapy, it takes an average of 15 to 20 sessions for them to report resolved symptoms. That’s around 3 to 5 months of weekly treatment.
While it’s not helpful to enter therapy expecting meaningful results right away, you should take the time to evaluate your own progress and discuss it with your therapist.
10. They challenge you — respectfully.
Different styles of therapy opt for different tactics to spur personal growth. Psychoanalysis involves examining the unconscious, while humanism provides the emotional support for you to develop as an individual.
Some styles of therapy involve questioning irrational thinking patterns. This should be done respectfully, without making you feel bad for ways of thinking that might not be serving you.
If your therapist ever makes you feel stupid, damaged, or guilty, it’s time to reconsider the relationship.
11. They offer a range of solutions.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. Sometimes, techniques that work for one client — whether it’s progressive muscle relaxation, goal setting, or meditation — simply don’t work for another.
While it’s important to be willing and open to try new things, if a particular intervention doesn’t work for you, your therapist should be able to provide other suggestions. They’re there to offer you a toolbox instead of a single tool.
12. They’re open to alternatives.
Your therapist is there to help you identify your needs. And sometimes, they might get it wrong, leading you in a direction that doesn’t feel like what you really need at that moment.
For instance, if your therapist is encouraging you to explore aspects of your childhood, but a more pressing concern is interfering with your ability to function on a day-to-day basis, it might be time to redirect.
You’re in the driver’s seat. Your therapist should be open to shifting gears according to what you feel you need.
13. They don’t rush your treatment.
Both you and your therapist should be on the same page regarding the goals of your treatment and the estimated timeline for achieving those goals. This is a discussion you should have early on in your treatment.
It’s also important to re-evaluate this plan as time passes. If your treatment isn’t progressing as you initially planned — perhaps you don’t have a lot of time to devote to exercises between therapy sessions, or you’re finding therapy harder than you anticipated — a good therapist will show flexibility and adaptability.
Needs and circumstances change. Therapy should, too.
14. They’re mindful of all aspects of your identity.
While many people seek out a therapist who shares a similar background as them, it’s unlikely that your practitioner will share all aspects of your identity, from your sexual orientation to your belief system and class identity.
That’s OK. A good therapist will make an effort to understand where you’re coming from and how it colors your emotions and experiences. At times, they might adopt or avoid treatments to suit your background.
In some cases, it might not work. If you don’t feel like your practitioner has enough knowledge of your culture, beliefs, and background, it’s OK to find someone else who does.
15. They take a back seat.
This should go without saying, but therapy is about you. Unlike a friendship, it’s not based on mutual exchange. A professional therapist should never use your sessions to address their own concerns.
Of course, that doesn’t mean a therapist can’t show their unique personality or occasionally share relevant personal experiences. What’s important is that the focus remains on you. If it doesn’t, it’s a red flag.
Therapy is challenging and painful work. You took the step of seeking help from a professional, and that’s something to be proud of.
Seeking help is just the beginning. While your therapist can’t do the work required for you, they can provide you with the resources and support you need to gain new insights, develop new skills, and adopt new habits.
17. You can see the value in your work together.
One of the most important signs of a good therapist is how you feel about your work with them. Although therapy can be challenging in all kinds of ways, you should feel positive about where it’s headed.
A good therapist inspires your confidence, leaving you feeling hopeful about the work that you’re doing.