A Detailed Look At The Benefits Of Counseling And Therapy

Updated March 23, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advisedthat this article contains mentions of suicidal ideation. If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.

When you start looking for help with your mental health, it’s easy to be confused by the huge variety of treatments and practitioners available. It can be particularly tough to understand the distinction between counseling and therapy. Many publications use both terms interchangeably, yet some treatment providers call themselves counselors while others say they’re psychotherapists. What’s the difference, and what can these treatment methods do for you?

In practice, there’s plenty of overlap between psychotherapy and counseling. They can be helpful for many of the same issues and often employ similar methods. The main difference is in their overall approach or philosophy. We’ll help you understand what benefits these treatments offer and how to decide which is best for your situation. 

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Learn how therapy can help your mental health and relationships

Counseling and therapy are more alike than different

A quick look at the scientific literature shows that many professionals in the field don’t see much difference between counseling and therapy. Numerous research publications lump the two together when looking at their effectiveness or recommending best practices.

Mental health care practitioners often don’t draw much of a distinction either. Many therapists will happily say that they provide “counseling” to patients, while licensed counselors are often trained in specific psychological therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Both counselors and therapists can make a formal diagnosis of mental illness and provide evidence-based treatment. And they often treat clients with similar psychological difficulties. 

A much more important distinction is the difference between a therapist or counselor and a psychologist or psychiatrist. Counselors and therapists can practice with a Master’s degree in a relevant field (such as psychology, counseling, or social work) and a license from a state-accredited board. 

A clinical psychologist, on the other hand, must have a Ph.D. in psychology, while a psychiatrist must be a medical doctor with a specialty in mental health. In most parts of the United States, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication, while psychologists, counselors, and therapists cannot. 

Still, a psychiatrist or psychologist will often engage in talk-based mental health care that would qualify as therapy or counseling.

The main difference between counseling and therapy

Despite all the similarities between counseling and psychotherapy, there is often a difference in their overall treatment philosophy.

Counselors tend to take a solution-focused approach, helping clients overcome particular challenges in their lives. They might address things like anxiety in social situations, difficulty with self-motivation, or compulsive gambling. If you undergo counseling, you’re likely to receive pragmatic tips for correcting self-sabotaging behavior or overcoming unhelpful thoughts. 

A therapist may also be consulted in response to specific issues, and they also tend to offer some practical ways to make positive changes in your life. However, they will also likely address your mental health as a whole, working with you to resolve counterproductive long-term patterns of thought, behavior, and emotional response. Therapy often involves discussing your past experiences in great depth to uncover the roots of your psychological troubles.

This can sometimes mean that counseling is a shorter process than therapy, though this isn’t universal. In practice, counselors and psychotherapists employ many of the same techniques, and therapists also aim to help you reach the point where you no longer need their services. 

Understanding the titles of mental health professionals

“Therapist” and “counselor” are broad terms that can apply to a wide variety of practitioners. These care providers will also have professional titles reflecting their specific training and licensure. It’s not always easy to understand the differences between these titles, so here’s a quick guide to a few common examples:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC): Has a Master’s degree and several years of supervised work experience in clinical settings. Can provide diagnoses and individual or group counseling.
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC): Holds a Master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a similar field, but may not have the same required number of clinical hours as an LMHC (though this may vary by state). 
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): Works to resolve conflicts and strengthen relationships between couples and within families. Requires a Master’s degree and 2,000-4000 hours of supervised work experience (varies by state).
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Provides similar services as an LPC or LMHC, but also helps disadvantaged clients with things like finding housing, getting accommodations for disabilities, or accessing social services. Has a Master’s degree, almost always in social work.
  • Licensed Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LAADC): Holds a Master’s degree and has logged a substantial amount of work experience (the amount varies by state). Specializes in counseling on issues of problematic substance use. 

In most cases, the decision to work with a “counselor” vs. “therapist” comes down to which person has training and experience that’s most relevant to your particular needs. 

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What benefits can counseling and therapy offer?

So what exactly can a psychotherapist or counselor do for you? Here’s a brief overview of some of the major benefits talk therapy can provide. Keep in mind that this isn’t an all-inclusive list. Even if your particular concern isn’t listed below, a counselor might still be able to help.

Therapy or counseling can…

Resolve emotional disorders

A common reason for people to seek therapy is to get help with anxiety disorders (such as generalized anxiety or social phobia) or mood disorders (like major depression and bipolar disorder). These conditions present different types of problems, but they often have similar roots in stress, trauma, and difficulty regulating emotion. Many types of counseling and psychotherapy have demonstrated their effectiveness in treating these illnesses and helping clients achieve a healthy emotional state.

Treat addiction

Many people find it difficult to control their use of drugs and alcohol without help. Mental health treatment is often successful at helping people break free of cycles of addiction. If you struggle with substance use, counseling can give you helpful strategies for quitting, and therapy can help you identify and address the psychological underpinnings of your behavior.

Repair damaged relationships

Some branches of counseling and therapy specialize in helping people to work out their differences together. If you and your romantic partner are frequently in conflict, having trouble understanding each other, or simply growing distant, couples therapy may help you work through these issues and forge a stronger connection. Research suggests that counseling can be successful even after serious breaches of trust such as infidelity. 

Help families in crisis come together

What if your relationship hurdles aren’t limited to your spouse or partner, but are affecting your children or other relatives as well? Family therapy may reveal what’s behind the difficulties you’re having with your loved ones, helping all parties find healthier ways to interact. It may also help with mental illnesses, whose effects are often worsened by interpersonal conflicts in the home. 

Improve behavior in children and adolescents

Young people may face unique challenges as they attempt to adjust to society, define their identities, and discover their goals in life. This can lead to behavioral issues such as poor academic performance, conflicts with authority, aggression, and unhealthy substance use. Both individual and family therapy show promise in helping adolescents develop more well-adjusted behavior.

Improve your self-awareness

Discussing your life with a mental health professional often leads to greater insight into your own motivations, desires, thinking style, and emotional responses. In some forms of therapy, such as psychodynamic therapy, this is an explicit goal, but it also often happens as a byproduct of working on specific life challenges in counseling.

Build self-confidence

Even if you’re not experiencing a mental disorder or life crisis, there may still be things you’d like to improve about yourself. Many people who struggle with confidence and assertiveness look to therapy as a possible solution, and the evidence suggests that it can work well.

Learn better communication skills

Counseling often involves learning to better articulate your thoughts and emotions. This doesn’t just help you develop a clearer understanding of yourself — it can also make it easier to interact and communicate with others.

Develop healthy coping strategies

Life can confront us with a large variety of stressful situations. When people aren’t able to manage this stress effectively, they can develop mental or physical illnesses, or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive alcohol use. Therapy can teach participants more effective ways to deal with the emotional strain of everyday life, leading to a more well-adjusted mindset.

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Learn how therapy can help your mental health and relationships

You can participate in counseling and therapy online

It’s becoming increasingly common for mental health professionals to offer their services online, communicating with patients through tools like text chat or videoconferencing. This can be a much easier way to access treatment, especially if you have a demanding schedule or live in a remote area with few providers nearby. It may also be more cost-effective for many clients.

The benefits of mental health counseling described above are achievable through online therapy as well as in-person treatment. A meta-analysis reviewing more than 90 published studies concluded that Internet-based counseling showed “no difference in effectiveness” compared to traditional therapy. Clients have received relief from a diverse array of personal and interpersonal difficulties through online therapy.

Takeaway

Therapy and counseling aren’t as different as you might think. Though counseling sometimes takes a narrower approach focused on solving specific problems for clients, both mental health practices involve many of the same techniques and can serve many of the same needs. Along with helping you treat various mental illnesses, counseling and therapy can often lead to improvements in life skills and overall well-being.

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