Psychotherapy Tips

The difference between counselling and psychotherapy

What is the difference between counselling and psychotherapy is an important question if you are thinking of embarking on some therapy? Accepting that you need help can be a difficult step to take. Once you have made the decision to get help it is beneficial to make sure that you get the right help. There is cross over between counselling and psychotherapy as well as some unique differences. This article will enable you to make an informed decision on which type of therapy is right for you. Every therapist has a different style and level of training so this article is just a guide.

The Difficulties a counsellor of psychotherapist might help with

A counsellor is more likely to help with a specific difficulty, current problem or surface issue. An example might include a bereavement or a difficulty that is not necessarily rooted in the past. A psychotherapist is more likely to help with more deep-rooted difficulties that affects a client’s life. Examples might include child abuse or trauma. A psychotherapist or counsellor however might help with either type of issue. A psychotherapist might help a client with psychological difficulties in life caused by internal difficulties whereas a counsellor might help a client with a problem triggered by external circumstances.

How long does counselling and psychotherapy last?

Counselling is likely to last a number of weeks or months. Psychotherapy is likely to be open ended and last a number of months or years. This is because counselling might help to address a current difficulty whereas psychotherapy might address difficulties rooted in the past. Psychotherapy is more in depth and facilitates long term changes; a reconstruction of personality or psyche areas. Counselling helps support existing personality structures. If you imagine the analogy of a house being the therapy. Counselling might involve a lick of paint and some new furniture. Psychotherapy might include an extension, loft conversion and basement.


Both psychotherapists and counsellors, use counselling techniques. Examples might include active listening skills, showing empathy and paraphrasing, reflecting, questioning elaboration clarifying. A psychotherapist however is likely to have a more elaborate array techniques assist their client. Examples might include working with the nervous system, neural networks or the unconscious. Techniques might include, play therapy, EMDR or visualisation.



Every school of training is different offering its own unique training qualification varying in quality and length. There is often cross over regarding theory, practical application of therapy and placement experience. Both may or may not contain a personal development process. This means that the trainee has seen a therapist themselves to work through some of their own difficulties. A psychotherapist might have seen clients over an extended period of time in order to gain their qualification. They may have also had to complete a psychiatric placement also. Both counsellors and psychotherapists might also have an area of speciality or training they have undergone to assist with specific difficulties by using a specific approach.

All the information in this article is a rough guide only and does not necessarily represent the reality of what a specific counsellor or psychotherapist does in reality. It is important to do your own research on the therapist that you are going to see.

Counselling & Psychotherapy Differences

CounsellingPsychotherapy Works with conscious processes and thoughtsWorks with the conscious, subconscious and unconscious processes and thoughts Less in depth training with a possible area of specialismExtensive training with personal development
component and possible psychiatric placement
with areas of specialism Might be focused on one particular difficulty which is
caused by current circumstancesFocused on a number of difficulties originating
from past and present life story Here and now focusThere and then, here and now Helps with more surface type difficulties and
current problems Psychotherapy helps with current and past difficulties which require in depth
processing and psyche
changes Emphasis on current difficulties Helps to uncover foundation of difficulties with a
reflective emphasis Counselling skillsSpecialist techniques as well as counselling
skills Counselling is usually a short to mid term processPsychotherapy is usually a medium
to long term process

Main Difference – Counselling vs Psychotherapy

Counselling and Psychotherapy are two terms which are often confused by many individuals, especially due to its interchangeable usage in psychiatry and overlapping nature regarding several features. However, there are some significant features of them, which will help in distinguishing one from the other. The main difference between counselling and psychotherapy is that counselling is a short term process whereas psychotherapy is a long term process.

Difference Between Counselling and Psychotherapy - infographic

What is Counselling

Counselling, which is also known as talk therapy, consists of a single conversation or a series of conversations, taking place between a psychologist and his client. It is a broadly used term in psychiatry, which goes hand in hand with treatments used for the enhancement of mental health. Counselling is also considered to be a specific kind of therapeutic approach, which will help an individual to overcome unnecessary emotions and behavioural patterns. The main objective of counselling is to make the client expose his distressing issues to a professional who has a deep knowledge about the human mind so that the client receives support to adjust himself in order to perform day to day activities in a normal and efficient manner.

For example, if a person is suffering from severe depression as a result of the loss of a loved one, proper counselling will assist him in an easy recovery from depressive feelings, and help him return to his normal way of life.

According to some health professionals, counselling should mainly focus on one problem at a time, thereby finding solutions in a logical way of thinking. In this case, a counsellor must show empathy towards the client, so that the client will feel comfortable to expose his true feelings, which will be very important in finding the most appropriate mode of therapy.

Main Difference - Counselling vs Psychotherap

What is Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, in contrast, is an evolutionary procedure which will support the client to develop a rational and clear vision about his long-standing attitudes, recurrent emotions, ways of thinking, behaviour, and personality, which might have resulted in current issues, in the quality of life and relationships with others.

Psychotherapy is also known to go deep into a particular matter in order to reveal the root cause that causes the related, disturbed perspective of life.  Ultimately, the client will relieve himself by taking the control of his life to himself and developing self-awareness, rather than getting triggered by unconscious impulses and simulations.

Psychotherapists are also aware of the individual’s soul, body and inner child, which might have made a negative impact on troublesome experiences. However, all these methods of revealing a person’s past life and his nature will eventually result in an effective and healing relationship between the client and psychotherapist which will be beneficial in creating a mentally healthy person.

Difference Between Counselling and Psychotherapy

Difference Between Counselling and Psychotherapy


Counselling: Counselling is a short term process, which focuses on one individual issue at a time, thereby finding a process to overcome it.

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is a long-term process, which involves long periods of working with clients in order to uncover the foundation of the problem and address it in the most efficient direct or indirect manner.


Counselling: Counselling usually deals with clients with good coping skills who are fit enough to think rationally and find solutions to their problems by themselves when a little supporting hand is provided by the counsellor.

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy mainly involves individuals who are dependent on the psychotherapist to gain control over their personality, mind, emotions and behavioural patterns. They might also need therapy from time to time with breakthrough periods, depending on the condition.


Counselling: Counselling also addresses issues in a less in-depth manner.

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapists have intense and extensive knowledge about psychological theories and modalities of treatments. They will make clients dig into their past experiences, in order to understand their human development, cognitive and behavioural patterns, thereby enabling them to explore themselves, identify as strong individuals and get rid of negative senses, self-believes, and external stimulations.

Image Courtesy:

“Balanced Life Institute – Santa Monica Psychotherapy” By Bliusa – Own work (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Commons Wikimedia

“Clinic Counselling Session” by hellocoolworld (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

The terms “counselor” and “psychotherapist” are often used interchangeably and have many similarities, but there are some important differences as well. In general, counseling is recommended for specific issues and situations, such as addiction or grief, and takes place over weeks to several months.

Psychotherapy, in contrast, tends to explore past issues that might be contributing to present day problems. It often takes place continually or intermittently over a period of years. In actual practice, however, there is a great deal of overlap between the two types of therapies.

Understanding some more of the differences between counseling and psychotherapy may be helpful in choosing the type of therapy that will be most effective for you as an individual.

Counseling vs. Psychotherapy

While the same therapist may provide both counseling and psychotherapy, psychotherapy generally requires more skill than simple counseling. It is conducted by professionals trained to practice psychotherapy such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, a trained counselor, or a social worker.

While a psychotherapist is qualified to provide counseling, a counselor may or may not possess the necessary training and skills to provide psychotherapy.

That said, a therapist may provide counseling with specific situations and a counselor may function in a psychotherapeutic manner.


Technically speaking, “counselor” means “advisor.” It involves two people working together to solve a problem. It is a term that is used in conjunction with many types of advice giving. For example, financial planning and spiritual guidance are both types of counseling.

Just about anyone may claim to be a counselor if they are in the role of giving advice. The term counseling may also properly be used to refer to what occurs in a relationship with a psychotherapist.

In the context of mental health, “counseling” is generally used to denote a relatively brief treatment that is focused primarily on behavior. It often targets a particular symptom or problematic situation and offers suggestions and advice for dealing with it.

In this setting, the counselor offers guidance and support as the individual figures out ways to better manage life and adjust to change or adversity.

There are many types of counselors, such as marriage and family therapists, grief counselors, addiction and substance abuse counselors, and more.


“Psychotherapy” on the other hand is generally a longer-term treatment that focuses more on gaining insight into chronic physical and emotional problems. Its focus is on the person’s thought processes, and how these may be influenced by past events such that they cause problems in the present.

In other words, psychotherapy addresses the root cause and core issues of current problems so that lasting change and personal growth may occur.

There are several different types of therapy that fall under the general heading of psychotherapy, including approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and much more.


There are many similarities between counseling and psychotherapy, and even with the distinction, counseling often includes some psychotherapy and psychotherapy often includes some counseling. Similarities include:

  • Development of a healing, safe, and therapeutic relationship between a therapist and an individual
  • Effectiveness for a wide range of people, both adults and children
  • Understanding a person’s feelings and behaviors, and addressing issues with the goal of improving a person’s life


While mental health professionals with more advanced degrees (eg. psychology PhD or PsyD) are more likely to provide psychotherapy, the same provider may do both types of therapy. There are some key differences between the providers, however.


  • Focus on present problems and situations

  • Specific situations or behaviors

  • Short term therapy (for a period of weeks and up to 6 months)

  • Action and behavior focused

  • Talk therapy

  • Guidance, support, and education to help people identify and find their own solutions to current problems

  • Secondary process


  • Focus on chronic or recurrent problems

  • Overall patterns, big picture oriented

  • Long term therapy, either continuous or intermittent over many years

  • Feeling and experience focused

  • May include testing (such as personality, intelligence), talk therapy, other therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy

  • In-depth focus on internal thoughts/feelings (core issues) leading to personal growth

  • Primary process

How to Choose Between a Counselor and Psychotherapist

When choosing a therapist, it’s helpful to learn about the differences noted above, as well as the background of specific providers and the approaches they use. Sometimes the choice will come down to personal preferences, access, or insurance coverage.

The most important step, however, is to find a therapist you can trust. In fact, the level of trust a person has in their mental health care practitioner plays the greatest role in whether the therapy will be successful or not.

You may actually need to talk with a provider or visit for a few appointments before you know which type of therapy is best for you. For example, with some situations it can be difficult to know if it is a short term, a limited problem you are facing (and thus, may fall under conditions best treated with counseling), or if instead there are events or situations in your past that are leading to the current problem.

When You May Wish to See a Counselor

Counseling may be a better option than psychotherapy if:

  • You have specific issues or short term problems you wish to address
  • You wish to learn coping skills to help better manage stress and improve relationships
  • You are coping with life transitions and adjustments, such as divorce or grief
  • You are coping with addiction issues
  • You are looking for someone who is essentially a “coach” who can guide and support you as you learn to recognize problems and formulate healthy solutions yourself

When You May Wish to See a Psychotherapist

A psychotherapist may be a better option if:

  • You have problems that are significantly impacting your life and relationships
  • You are coping with past trauma, or if you believe situations in the past may be playing a role in your current issues
  • Your present issues are chronic or recurring concerns
  • You have a chronic medical condition (such as autoimmune disease, cancer, etc.) that is affecting your emotional well-being
  • You have a diagnosed mental health condition such bipolar disorder or a major anxiety disorder
  • You have seen a counselor and your issues aren’t improving even though you’ve been actively working on solutions

Counseling vs. Psychotherapy for Depression

Both counseling and psychotherapy are used in the treatment of depression, and the choice can depend on the severity of the depression, whether it is a new issue for you or rather an ongoing or recurrent problem and more.

As far as the effectiveness of the two approaches, a 2016 study found that counseling was just as effective for the treatment of previously untreated mild to moderate depression diagnosed in primary care.

Another 2016 study, however, found that interpersonal psychotherapy was somewhat more beneficial than counseling in adolescents with depression, with respect to both symptoms, and overall functioning over the short-term. That said, a 2018 study looking at the same group found that long term, the effects of counseling were more beneficial.

People with chronic, severe depression might benefit most from psychotherapy, whereas people with mild to moderate depression may benefit most from developing a good relationship with a therapist based on mutual trust, and then talking with them about which approach would be most helpful.

Preparing for a Visit With Counselor or Psychotherapist

Whether you choose to see a counselor or a psychotherapist, your initial appointment will likely be more rewarding if you do a little homework ahead of time. Doing so will not only help you clarify why you are seeking professional help but will help the provider you see know whether she believes she will be able to help you or not.

Before your appointment, make a list of:

  • Any issues, concerns, or symptoms you are coping with, even if they seem to be unrelated or are not the reason why you are seeking therapy
  • Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes
  • All medications, vitamins or other supplements that you’re taking, including doses
  • Questions to ask your healthcare provider

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A Word From Verywell

There are some reasons why you may wish to choose a counselor instead of a psychotherapist, or vice versa, but the most important step is getting started. It can take some time to find a therapist who you fully trust, and you may need to visit a few providers before you find the right fit. Keep in mind that you are the consumer, and it’s OK to shop around. Personalities differ, and the best therapist for someone else may not be the right therapist for you.

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