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Mental health counselor vs clinical psychologist

Clinical mental health counselors have master’s degrees in mental health counseling or a related major. Depending on the school and coursework, these programs range from about 1-3 years. Coursework focuses on mental health themes including human development, counseling techniques, assessment, and multicultural issues.

While many professionals have undergraduate degrees in psychology or other related majors, this is not always required for graduate school admissions.

Mental health counseling graduate programs with accreditation, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), may increase chances of employment opportunities after graduation and helps with licensure.

All mental health counseling students must also engage in practicum and internship experiences under the supervision of a licensed counselor. These experiences provide students with the opportunity to apply theory and begin initial stages of performing therapy and clinical services.

A counselor meets with a client.


Online counseling degree students and master’s in psychology students often have similar career and personal passions. Namely, they want to understand human minds, behaviors, and emotions more deeply, and apply their knowledge in the field, both to help others and to conduct valuable research.

However, though the two areas of study are linked — counseling is sometimes thought of as a branch of psychology — there are fundamental differences between the respective programs’ outcomes and curricula. A thorough understanding of these differences can help students who are considering a counseling vs. a clinical psychology degree to identify which fits best with their career goals. Considering these points when making a decision can help students identify the right program for them: either a master’s degree in counseling or a master’s in psychology.

Ensuring your personal goals, interests, and ambitions align with your chosen degree track is central to getting the most out of your education. Digging into program specifics, as well as high-level comparisons between clinical psychology and professional counseling, can help you arrive at the right master’s choice.

Clinical Psychology vs. Counseling

Psychology has a large scope, but it is generally regarded as the study of cognition and the sciences of behavior, feeling, and thought. Clinical psychology is a specialized branch that involves analyzing and treating a wide range of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, from short-term problems to chronic or severe issues. A Master of Science in psychology is a common degree sought by students to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to be a clinical psychologist — which also usually requires a doctorate. Using this profession as a benchmark helps us better understand how counseling can be differentiated, even though the field itself descends from psychology, and what a Master of Arts in Counseling offers prospective students.

The word “clinical” is taken from the Greek word “klinike,” meaning “bedside.” “Counselor” comes from the Latin “consulere,” which is related to the act of advising. Looking at the terms’ etymological roots, clinical psychology can be seen as delivering mental and behavioral health care, while counseling is more about giving guidance, helping clients process their own life situations, and empowering them with tools to manage their emotions. This is not to say these responsibilities are exclusive to each field. There is substantial overlap between the two. However, this foundational difference is large enough to keep the two paths separate, and it can help set the stage for a student’s decision to enroll in a counseling master’s degree program or one that grants a master’s in psychology.

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Master’s in Clinical Psychology

Although basic mental functions and processes form the bonds between psychology and counseling, master’s programs in psychology usually go more deeply into subjects like psychopathology, psychopharmacology, and psychoanalytic therapy, as well as diagnostics and intervention therapies. While counselors may be trained in these same sciences to better understand their clients’ conditions, professional psychologists research or otherwise treat severe, long-term conditions such as personality disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychoses.

Psychologists are also educated on how to administer various tests like IQ tests, aptitude assessments, personality characterizations, and performance measurements that may be used in individual client examinations, in larger research trials, or as part of contracted services. Additionally, psychologists study different theoretical approaches to psychology, such as the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, and humanistic perspectives.

These core competencies and functions of clinical psychology point students toward what they can expect from a program that offers a Master of Science in psychology. For instance, coursework that psychology students may encounter includes:

  • Classes that focus on the underpinnings of cognition, perception, psychology of the self, and decision-making
  • Lessons focused on research, like those on statistics, qualitative and quantitative analyses, and how to recruit and vet participants for studies
  • Electives that focus on particular specialties, like forensic psychology, industrial psychology, developmental psychology, and school psychology

Psychology programs often have large time requirements for practicums or residencies, as clinical psychologists have to build up a number of hours to become licensed. Clinical psychologists must be licensed in their state of practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but they typically involve a specific level of education, supervised professional experience, and passing an examination. Many states require licensed psychologists to complete continuing education in order to retain their license.

Master’s in Counseling

Comparably, while students may find that the curriculum for an online graduate counseling degree broaches the same overarching topics as that of a master’s in psychology, a Master of Arts in Counseling program focuses on preparing students to become mental health counselors.

For example, counseling professionals are more likely to engage with clients who are children, families, or couples in a marriage, or who are addicted to substances, in abusive relationships, or otherwise in need of guidance. These situations are different from severe psychotic cases, yet they still require the same psychological understanding of the brain, as well as the advanced skills online counseling students can gain, like:

  • Expressing empathy
  • Addressing and defusing conflict
  • Providing life guidance for students
  • Helping clients express themselves
  • Teaching coping mechanisms or other strategies

Personal interactions and relationships are often at the heart of professional counseling work, and helping students build aptitude in these areas is a key objective of any graduate counseling program. To that end, common curricula of such programs include:

  • Counseling ethics and intervention strategies
  • Interpersonal behavior, crisis management, and family dynamics
  • Grief and loss, and human growth and development
  • Counseling diverse populations (such as veterans and addicts)

Once counselors earn their degree, they must be licensed within their state of practice. Like the requirements for a psychologist’s license, the exact requirements for a counselor’s license vary by state. They may also vary depending on whether a counselor works independently or as part of a private practice.

How Bradley University Can Help You Decide

Students interested in pursuing either a master’s in psychology or a master’s degree in counseling face a tough decision. However, taking into account your personal ambition and career goals can help point you in the direction of the right program.

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Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling has two specialized graduate tracks that prepare students to become either a professional school counselor or a clinical mental health counselor. The program also features cutting-edge approaches to brain-based interventions (like the emerging field of neurocounseling) that expose students to advanced psychology subjects in the context of real-life counseling.

If you’re interested in more information about admissions and online program specifics, contact an enrollment adviser today.


Recommended Readings

Is There a Difference Between a Therapist and a Counselor?

Social Work vs. Counseling: Choosing a Career That Is Right for You

Why a Master of Arts in Counseling Degree Is Right for You



American Counseling Association, What Is Professional Counseling?

American Psychological Association, A Career in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, Mission, Values, and Vision

Bradley University, Online Counseling Programs

National Board for Certified Counselors, Board Certification

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

VeryWell Mind, “Clinical Psychology History, Approaches, and Careers”


Choosing to seek out help for the myriad of issues life can throw at us is something that many people face during the course of their lives. Some choose to seek out someone to talk to and straighten themselves out, while others seek help for mental illness.

Either way, the process can be overwhelming, as the vast array of professionals available can make the average person’s head spin. But this need not be discouraging. There is ease in understanding the differences between all of these services that are available, and specifically what they can offer you as a client.

Furthermore, with the plethora of information available, finding the right professional for all of your cognitive needs has never been easier.

There are two common types of mental health professionals that are typically sought after; mental health counselors and clinical psychologists. While they do have similarities, they have many differences that are often misunderstood and merit further analysis.

Clinical psychologists and counselors are both state licensed, mental health practitioners and while they do have overlapping duties, there are different distinctions, especially when it comes to their training.


The training of mental health counselors typically involves a master’s level education in mental health counseling, which follow strict curriculum standards that have been previously set by the CACREP. They typically focus on the practical skills needed to help individuals through their life challenges.

These programs typically offer courses, which focus on human growth and development, diversity and multicultural issues, and career development as its core concepts.

One thing counseling programs do not include is courses in statistics and/or research, and that is one of the several differences in comparison to a clinical psychologist’s training.

All clinical psychologists have pursued their educations on a doctoral level, and are required to sit down and work one on one with clients on a clinical and counseling level during their residencies. Their education often places a strong emphasis on psychopathology, which typically varies by specialty, and takes on the predominant services offered in practice.

Along with educational training, both professionals also differ in regard to the overall services offered in practice.

Scope of Practice

Responsibilities of a mental health counselor and a clinical psychologist vary, but can also intersect. While both can typically offer counseling on a basic level, their overall scope of practice typically is aligned with their training.

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For starters, a clinical psychologist devotes a majority of sessions with their clientele to the administration of an array of cognitive testing including IQ tests, aptitude tests, and those, which conclusively assess basic neurological function.

This facet of psychology entails administering these tests to patients that are not seen on a regular basis as well, and is an important assessment in treatment. These tests and assessments are tools that clinical psychologists are typically trained to use, which is another difference in the practice of mental health counselors.

Mental health counselors are limited in the assessments they use and the tests they can legally perform, especially cognitively.

In many jurisdictions, mental health counselors have to pursue additional training to administer these psychometric assessments in practice. Mental health counselors are typically prohibited from cognitive testing, or generally limited to only performing certain assessments in certain, strict conditions.

Other states also allow mental health counselors to perform cognitive testing under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Along with differences in administration, counselors and psychologists also differ in the type of clientele that they service as well.

Clinical psychologists focus their practice on the mentally ill population, mostly due to the fact that their training is geared toward psychotherapy. Many clinical psychologists however, do have the option of choosing to focus on counseling if they are in private practice.

Individuals who opt for this type of private counseling do have the option of choosing either type of professional to meet their needs. All in all, it often comes down to their perceptions and associations of the entire concept of therapeutic intervention, and how a patient feels they can ultimately benefit.

A patient may have more options with clinical psychologists however, as they can choose to specialize in a myriad of sub-specialties, while mental health counselors can be generally limited.

Some clinical psychologists choose to pursue licensing as professional counselors, while others choose to frequently immerse themselves in research.

Furthermore, some mental health counselors can also choose to pursue a PhD and move into the typical arenas of a clinical psychologist, which is however, not the norm.

All in all, regardless of what the specialty, it is indicative that both mental health counseling and psychology can lead to a strong career with excellent employment prospects.

Salary and Outlook

Both fields of counseling and clinical psychology are currently trending strong growth, but counseling is growing faster. Employment prospects for mental health counselors are projected to grow 22% between 2021 and 2031. Furthermore, jobs for clinical psychologists are projected to increase by 10%.

Employment prospect growth is also aligned with projected salary growth in the same decade. The mean salary for clinical psychologists was $99,640 in 2021. The mean salary for mental health counselors was $53,490. This ultimately shows that whatever profession one decides to pursue, there is definitely excellent job and salary prospects.

Final Thoughts

Clinical psychology and mental health counseling are different therapeutic interventions that are typically sought, and should not be confused when taking on a mental health professional.

Conclusively, mental health counselors pursue a more humanistic approach in therapy, typically using the community as a resource in treatment, while clinical psychologists deal with mental illness and behavioral problems.

While some clinicians have found ways to intersect their practices, the two can also be very compartmentalized. However, as we’ve typically seen, mental health counseling and clinical psychology have crossed paths historically, and can definitely do so again one day, ultimately making seeking mental help a simple, one stop approach in therapeutic intervention.

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