Commonalities And Differences Between A Therapist And Counselor

Medically reviewed by Katrice Hollins, LCSW, LICSW
Updated April 10, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Although the words “therapist” and “counselor” are often used interchangeably, these two titles usually have several differences involving education, licensure, the types of issues they address, and the length of treatment. However, their commonalities often include their overarching goals and their effectiveness. If you’re looking for long-term treatment for a mental health disorder, therapy may be a better option for you. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for short-term treatment to address a current situation that is causing you stress or emotional turmoil, counseling may be a suitable choice. You can find a counselor or therapist locally or online.

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What is a therapist?

therapist is generally a professional that uses psychotherapy to treat mental illnesses and mental health challenges. Psychotherapy is typically a long-term treatment that aims to help with chronic problems and gain useful insight into these issues. Psychotherapy also commonly uses techniques to overcome chronic issues and provide coping skills for the future. The most common type of psychotherapy is usually cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), though there can be many other kinds.

A therapist normally has a higher degree, usually at least a master’s, if not a doctorate. Therapists may be psychologists, psychiatrists, or neither. They are usually trained in various forms of psychotherapy. They may also have the knowledge and ability to diagnose mental health issues and refer you to a psychiatrist if medications are deemed necessary or potentially helpful. Some therapists are also psychiatrists, but not all. Some therapists may also offer counseling in addition to psychotherapy.

What is a counselor?

A counselor is generally a trained individual that can guide you through a kind of therapy that aims to tackle specific problems that have arisen, such as situational depression, grief, trauma, or other life events that may cause you mental anguish. At its root, counseling is not typically designed to treat mental illness; rather, it can be a way for people who are generally mentally well to improve their mental health by talking through events or problems in their lives.

Counselors might not have an advanced degree, though in some cases, they may have a master’s or doctorate. They usually have a bachelor’s degree. Counselors are rarely doctors or psychiatrists, meaning that they normally cannot prescribe medications. They may be able to refer you to a doctor who can prescribe medications, but this is not always the case. Generally speaking, counselors are meant to be a short-term solution to life’s many stressors.

Similarities between therapists and counselors 

Although they can be very different, there can also be some similarities between a therapist and a counselor. The similarities mostly lie in the treatment’s general purpose, the goals of treatment, and the treatment’s effectiveness. 

Goals of therapy and counseling

The primary goal of both therapy and counseling is typically to develop a safe, healing, and therapeutic bond between the therapist or counselor and the client. This bond or understanding can be important for making progress in whatever problems an individual may be facing. Other therapy or counseling goals may vary depending on the situation, the client, and the particular mental health disorders or challenges involved.

Effectiveness of therapy and counseling

When used appropriately, counseling and therapy both tend to be highly effective. Psychotherapy can effectively treat many disorders, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and others. Counseling, too, can effectively help people maintain or improve their mental health when problems arise that they cannot cope with alone.


Differences between therapists and counselors

While the terms therapist and counselor are often used interchangeably, they aren’t necessarily the same.

Level of education

One of the biggest differences between a therapist and a counselor is usually the degree that the practitioner holds. A counselor may only have a bachelor’s degree. In fact, some counselors that also do substance use disorder counseling may only have an associate’s degree. Therapists generally possess a higher degree, usually at least a master’s, if not a doctorate. Some therapists are psychologists or psychiatrists, although not all are.


Licensure can be another big difference between counselors and therapists. There is generally no license required for counselors. Almost anyone with the appropriate education and training can be a counselor and use different therapy modes to benefit their patients. However, therapists must normally be licensed in the state in which they practice. The type of licensure required tends to depend on the practitioner, such as whether they are a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Duration of treatment

The duration of treatment when it comes to therapy and counseling can also be very different.

Counseling is generally meant to be a short- to intermediate-term solution to life’s many problems that can arise. It is not usually meant to be a long-term solution or a way to treat serious mental health issues.

Therapy, on the other hand, is commonly an intermediate- to long-term treatment. Many people undergo therapy for one year or more several times throughout their lifetime, depending on the problems they are facing. Therapy is usually meant to treat mental illness, while counseling is primarily meant to treat the stress and anxiety that come with life’s bumps in the road.

Types of issues addressed

The types of problems that counselors and therapists address can also be different. Counseling frequently addresses normal life situations and problems such as losing a loved one, the end of a relationship or marriage, the end of a career, a traumatic event that happened to you or someone close to you, and other situational problems.

Therapists, on the other hand, tend to address different issues. Most people who get psychotherapy face either clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness. These problems often require longer and more intense treatment.

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Finding a therapist or counselor

Finding a therapist or counselor can be very easy. You can ask your primary care doctor for a referral, or you can talk to your health insurance provider to discover what your plan covers in terms of counselors and therapists. If you don’t have health insurance or cannot get a referral for another reason, don’t worry—you may still have options.

One option you may wish to consider is online therapy, where you may easily connect with a provider who meets your needs and preferences. A potential benefit of online therapy is that you can often schedule appointments at times that wouldn’t be available at a traditional therapist’s office—and you can attend your sessions from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have a stable internet connection.

As research has shown, there is generally no difference between the efficacy of online therapy and in-office therapy. Both types of treatment may be suitable options for those who wish to work with licensed professionals to improve their mental health.


Although therapists and counselors tend to have similar goals and efficacy rates, they may also have differences, particularly regarding their education, licensure, length of treatment, and the types of issues they usually help with. In general, therapy tends to be better for deeper concerns like mental illness, while counseling is often most beneficial for short-term situations that cause stress and emotional upset. If you’d like to work with a mental health professional, you may connect with one online or in your local area.

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