Counseling Vs. Therapy: What Are The Differences, And Which Option Is Best For You?

By Kristina Speciale

Updated November 15, 2019

Reviewer Dawn Brown

Seeking help is a brave step for individuals. How does one know whether he or she requires counseling or therapy? Despite the two terms being frequently confused as the same thing, counseling and therapy are two different treatment methods. Discovering the truth behind each will not only clear up some confusion but will help you to understand which course of action is best for you.

One of these terms deals with psychiatry, the other with psychology. For many people, the two subjects are the same. However, those in the medical field understand that while these two professions share similarities, there are differences worth noting. The difference between counseling and therapy is ultimately the style of treatment.


Psychiatry Or Psychology?

To understand the most basic difference between counseling and therapy, it is important first to understand the difference between psychiatry and psychology. Like counseling and therapy, these two words are also used interchangeably. However, these two terms do not have the same meaning and should not be used in place of one another. To get a clear understanding of the variances between these two terms, it is best to start with the definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster, psychiatry is defined as "a branch of medicine that deals with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders." Psychology, on the other hand, is defined as "the science of mind and behavior" from the same source. The specific word separating the two subject matters is medicine. That is an important distinction when getting into the difference between counseling and therapy.


The Merriam-Webster definition of counseling is "professional guidance of the individual by utilizing psychological methods, especially in collecting case history data, using various techniques of the personal interview, and testing interests and aptitudes." The definition makes it clear that counseling is the psychology approach to behavior. By dissecting the definition, understanding is far simpler.

Perhaps the easiest portion of the definition is the beginning: "professional guidance of the individual by utilizing psychological methods…" At its most basic form, counseling is simply direction provided by someone trained in behavior from a scientific standpoint. The science used involves the person's personal history, aspects of their personality, and using what captures their attention and personal skills to facilitate guidance. This comes from the remaining portion of the definition.

Although counseling is far better understood with the definition, it is also helpful to know what types of situations would benefit from counseling. Counseling addresses a variety of concerns, from adjusting to changes in school or work, relationship challenges, managing stress, to difficulties with personality traits. If you were to seek counseling, you might expect to have one on one counseling sessions, relationship counseling, addiction counseling, and even training. These methods can be incredibly effective and have the ability to benefit you and your situation if applied correctly. If you feel as though you need counseling, please do not hesitate to seek assistance.

One of the biggest aspects of counseling is the lack of medicinal treatment. Although a counselor or psychologist might have a Ph.D. and have Dr. in his or her name, this type of professional is not a medical doctor. Counseling does not generally come accompanied by prescribed medication. This kind of treatment attempts to solve any problems without a prescription.

Counseling is also considered to be a short-term endeavor. Psychologists go into a session expecting to resolve the issue at hand shortly. There are some topics that counselors can solve in as few as 6 or 12 sessions. There are longer-term issues that can be addressed with counseling, but it is not necessarily the norm.


Seeking out counseling means expecting treatment without medication, having a desire to solve the problem on a realistic timeline, and using psychology to facilitate open discussion as a form of treatment. If you feel that counseling might be a good fit for you, reach out and ask for help!


Therapy is defined as the "medical treatment of impairment, injury, disease, or disorder." Because therapy is a medical treatment, it is considered the psychiatry side of treatment. Having defined therapy as psychiatry might lead you to believe that psychology plays no part in it. To clear things up, while therapy is based in psychiatry, it still has aspects of psychology. The difference lies in the education of the professional. When opting for therapy, individuals are looking to see a medical doctor regarding their health concerns.

Health concerns that therapy can help with are most mental health illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, depression, and even schizophrenia. However, even though therapy is designed to help with these illnesses, it can also help everyday problems like grieving the loss of a loved one, learning new parenting skills, and dealing with a fear or phobia. Therapy is not just limited to mental illness, as many counseling practices are used in therapy as well.

Therapy can involve counseling, or therapists can take other routes of treatment. From music therapy to art therapy, or even meditation, the possibilities are many. A therapist also can prescribe medication as needed. Between varied therapy styles, prescription medicine, and extended treatment, therapy is a good option for a variety of concerns.

Potential patients may find themselves asking, is extended treatment necessary? In truth, no - extended treatment is not always necessary. Depending on the issue at hand and the professional and medical opinion of the therapist, treatment can be a few short sessions or recurring visits for years. Most therapy patients expect recurring check-ups since most short term concerns are reserved for counseling.

Some individuals appreciate regular sessions, whether weekly or monthly or somewhere in between. Others need assistance with a single problem, get the required assistance within a session or two, and do not need to go back to therapy. Trusting your provider with the knowledge to know when you need more therapy and when you're ready to leave it behind is part of having a good therapist.


Therapy can be a great way for you to get something off your chest without judgment, a personal opinion, or have a third party help you to see things from a different perspective. With the variety of options available for treatment in therapy, it might be a good option for you if you're seeking help. If you do feel as though therapy is the best option for you, taking the first step in obtaining help is encouraged.

Which Is Best For Me?

Both counseling and therapy offer help for those with a variety of concerns. To decide which option is best for you, you must first think about the problem at hand. It is also important to consider what you expect from treatment. Between these two steps, you can get a better idea of whether counseling or therapy is best for you.

What problem or problems are you having that might be helped with counseling or therapy? If you're struggling with a large, life-changing decision, it is unlikely that you would need therapy. Rather, a few counseling sessions might help you to discuss your hesitations and fears and ultimately draw out the best choice.

Perhaps you find yourself addicted to prescription drugs. If that's the case, it is unlikely that going to therapy would be the best option, as addiction counseling is a more personalized option. The same goes for struggles with relationship troubles and even improving self-esteem. If you struggle with similar things, counseling is likely the best option for you.

Therapy, on the other hand, might be best for you if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness. If you have not yet been diagnosed, but feel as though it could be a possibility, a therapist can help discover how best to treat you or your potential illness. For example, if you find yourself having unexplained mood swings and extreme feelings of highs and lows, a therapist can help to treat your concerns and possibly find a medication that will work for you. Suicidal thoughts or extreme depression, dealing with deep-seated childhood trauma, or similar topics are best suited for therapy.

Getting help is one of the first steps to getting better or improving your situation. If you are confused about whether you should make an appointment with a counselor or a therapist, find a professional in your insurance network, and just go. The difference between counseling and therapy is not as important as seeking help, to begin with.


Once you make an appointment with a counselor or therapist, a professional will be able to determine if another form of treatment will work better for you. However, attending that very first appointment is a great way to make an effort in bettering yourself and improving your quality of life. Do not hesitate to find help when you need it, as it is never too early to find assistance when it comes to your mental health.

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